By Matthew Burgess
The New Saints were left stunned as FK Feronikeli made a sensational comeback to draw 2-2 – and deny the Welsh side what had seemed a certain first-leg victory in their Champions League clash.
Second-half goals from Greg Draper and Aeron Edwards had put The New Saints in control of the home tie until Mevlan Zeca’s 89th-minute strike for the visitors sparked a late collapse.
The Kosovon side were then awarded a penalty, three minutes into added time as Astrit Fazliu converted to wrestle back control of the tie with two away goals.
The draw will feel like a defeat for Scott Ruscoe’s side, who looked set to see out victory at Park Hall and take a two-goal advantage into next week’s return leg.
Instead, Ruscoe must now pick his players up from the floor or risk exiting the Champions League qualifying stages at the first hurdle.
Going in at half-time, The New Saints would have been the happier team. Settled in possession and looking composed, they rarely seemed troubled.
Indeed, the opening half saw chances at a premium with the peculiar sight of a brass band performing a medley of mainly non-football related songs proving to be an increasingly welcome distraction for those in attendance seeking more goalmouth action.
Neither side looked like breaking the deadlock until early into the second-half when Greg Draper was bundled over inside the area.
The striker duly converted the penalty – thumping the ball down the middle of goal to give The New Saints the lead.
Only after the opening goal did space start to open up for either side. Saints winger Adrian Cieslewicz found had the ball at his feet running into the Feronikeli area as the visitors looked rocked having given up a goal.
The Kosovars would quickly show their own attacking intent, though, swiftly breaking moments later as Kastriot Rexha spun and shot wide of the post.
Shortly before the hour mark, The New Saints were dealt a defensive blow as full-back Chris Marriot was forced off, leaving debutant Keston Davies to form a centre-back partnership with 20-year-old Ryan Harrington, who had only joined the club earlier this week.
Their lack of experience was tested as Feronikeli’s influential winger Zeca began to make his mark on the game with a number of chances, forcing Paul Harrison into making a save low before rising highest at the far post to head narrowly wide past the upright.
With 77 minutes on the clock, a The New Saints corner saw the Feronikeli goalkeeper left in no-man’s land and Aeron Edwards was able to poke the ball home.
At the other end, Zeca remained a threat, heading into the side netting and bursting through heart of the Saints defence, forcing Harrison to beat the ball away to safety.
Zeca would finally make his mark with three minutes remaining, eventually beating Harrison with a powerful header before The New Saints crumbled under late pressure as Simon Spender handled the ball in the box, allowing Feronikeli to snatch a cruel equaliser.
The New Saints: Harrison (C), Spender, Marriott (Harington 56), Davies, Routledge, Brobbel (Nembhard 65), Draper (Byrne 75), Redmond, Cieslewicz, Mullan, Edwards.