Dieter Hecking's VfL Wolfsburg came away from the GHELAMCO Arena with a 3-2 advantage, after goals from Julian Draxler and Max Kruse. However it could've been so much better after ten late minutes of madness, which saw Sven Kums and Kalifa Coulibaly draw some parity for the Flemish side, KAA Gent.
In a rather un-inspiring first forty five minutes it took a moment of brilliance to break the deadlock, which came in the form of Draxler. The €36 million man replicated this again at the start of the second half, before Max Kruse gave die Wölfe a three goal advantage with an improvised finish.
However, when all seemed lost for Gent courtesy of their captain, Sven Kums and Kalifa Coulibaly they gave themselves a lifeline for the second leg in Lower Saxony. Kums curling an effort beyond Koen Casteels, whilst Coulibaly nodded home at the near post.
In what was huge occasion in this region of East Flanders, and Belgium on a whole, the spectacle had in the end not failed to live to expectations.
A moment of brilliance
It was clear from the offset that Hein Vanhaezebrouck, and KAA Gent's usual three at the back system wasn't working. Die Wölfe were keeping their width, with imperativeness, and had caused their Pro League counterparts serious trouble through the marauding right wing runs of Sebastian Jung and the more advanced Vieirinha - despite no serious chances amassing.
Within a mere ten minutes the eccentric Belgian manager, Vanhaezebrouk had alleviated the threat and had made a tactical alteration to his side; Brecht Dejaegere switched from a forward role to cover the left flank, at the expense of Moses Simon who went to partner Laurent Depoitre. The sort of pragmatic approach that has characterised the dramatic rise of Gent and their manager.
The home side saw immediate benefits and if Thomas Foket had kept a cool head they could've taken the lead. Unfortunately for the Flemish natives at the GHELAMCO Arena Foket slashed at the effort, after a Depoitre head down, and saw the ball sail over the crossbar.
Despite this the Bundesliga side, VfL Wolfsburg, still dominated proceeding. Dieter Hecking had clearly instructed his side to press the Gent defence, and this tactic was bearing fruit for the somewhat metaphorical packs of die Wölfe players that were hounding their opposites. Max Kruse saw two efforts, as a result of this tactic, saved by Matz Sels but for the most part the finishing wasn't up to par for the visitors. Luiz Gustavo and Maximilian Arnold skewing shots well wide of the Gent goal.
Their best opportunity of the first half however did not come courtesy of a Wolfsburg man, it would come in the form of SC Freiburg's on loan Stefan Mitrović. The Serbian saw his headed clearance from a Max Kruse hooked cut-back, which was destined for the on-rushing Julian Draxler, drift only an inch wide of Sels post.
VfL Wolfsburg are one of only two German sides, along with the ever impervious Bayern Munich, that remain carrying the standard in the Champions League; after Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen were knocked out in the Group Stages. Their opponents on the night, KAA Gent, are the first ever Belgian side to qualify for this stage of the competition.
In what was a rather uninspiring opening forty five it would take a moment of real magic, from a quality player to break the deadlock and this came on the stroke of the half in the form of Julian Draxler. The former FC Schalke 04, €36 million man, pirouetted with ease round the pressing Foket before exchanging passes with Vieirinha and slotting home round Matz Sels after the return ball on the edge of the sixteen yard box. Die Wölfe had the all important away goal.
Draxler had been in some scrumptious form prior to the game, also opening the scoring in a 2-0 Bundesliga victory over FC Ingolstadt 04 at weekend. The goal in East Flanders proved to be the first time since March 2013 that Draxler had scored on two consecutive occasions.
Life left in the tie
It was two soon after the restart and once again it was Draxler who teased the Gent defence before delivering the deadly blow. The attacking midfielder picked up the change from a loose Renato Neto ball, nut-megged the closing Mitrović before chipping, almost Lionel Messi esc, the helpless Matz Sels.
Prior to the Draxler goal, KAA Gent had started the second half in the ascendancy and through a number of free kicks had exerted some pressure upon Koen Casteels, the stand-in Wolfsburg 'keeper in the absence of Diego Bengalio, however the second goal completely destroyed any momentum Hein Vanhaezebrouck's side could muster. Luiz Gustavo and Vieirinha both had picked up cheap yellow cards previously.
Five minutes after and the tie was heading the unfortunate way of an embarrassment for the hosts, Gent. Max Kruse getting what seemed like his thigh on the end of an Andre Schürrle cross to give what seemed an unassailable three goal lead for Dieter Hecking's away side. Jubilation for the former 1. FC Nürnberg coach, who had been criticised in the wake of die Wölfe's recent run of poor form.
A terrible performance from the hosts, who have impressed domestically in the Pro League over the course of the last two seasons.
Despite the early tactical change from Vanhaezebrouck, the attacking quartet of Vieirinha, Schürrle, Kruse and the delicious Draxler were exposing the three man defence the Belgian's chose to offer. Mitrović and Nana Asare particularly exposed down the Wolfsburg right flank.
Kruse nearly had his second, and heaped even more misery on the home players, managers and faithful who were still in shock following die Wölfe's quick fire double. The ex Mönchengladbach and FC St. Pauli man crashed a curling left footed effort against the up-right, after opening his body well.
Despite the one sided scoreline, Sven Kums the home captain proved why he has earned so many plaudits this season. An cocky, almost arrogant swagger around the field seemingly the only way KAA Gent would get back into the game. He saw a deflected effort loop over the head of Casteels and rattle onto the crossbar.
However, the Flemish fans would soon have something to cheer about and it would come once again in the form of Kums. The midfielder, who has eleven goals from deep this campaign, marauding down the Wolfsburg right flank before weaving his way into the box and curling an effort beyond Casteels, courtesy of a weak fist from the Belgian goalkeeper. The former 1899 Hoffenheim man did not completely cover himself in glory. The introduction of Israeli, Kenny Saief had completely changed the nature of the contest.
Out of nowhere the previously limp Gent had been spurred into life and were sensing that they could gain further success. Both Foket and Dejaegere tested the VfL Wolfsburg goalkeeper, but on these occasions Casteels stood firm albeit after spilling both shots and gathering on the second occasion.
Yet the hosts made the second leg at the Volkswagen Arena in Lower Saxony an interesting event, as the late substitute Kalifa Coulibaly nodded home from close range - cue rapturous celebrations from the home contingent, who had had little to cheer of for most of the ninety minutes. Christian Träsch, who had had to fill in for the injured Sebastian Jung at right back, allowed the ball in too easily which the Mali man, Coulibaly, nipped in to nod home infront of Danté who also could've done more.
Ten minutes of madness from Dieter Hecking's Wolves, that somewhat eroded the hard work the previous eighty had bestowed. However an equaliser did not come and die Wölfe still hold the precious lead for the second leg in three weeks time.