Benfica, PSV, Red Star reach Champions League group stage
Former European champions Benfica, PSV Eindhoven and Red Star Belgrade advanced to the Champions League group stage on Wednesday, while Salzburg was eliminated in the playoffs for the fifth time in nine years after wasting a two-goal lead.
Salzburg's quest to join Europe's elite under long-time financial backer Red Bull was in sight when it led Red Star 2-0 with 30 minutes to play in the second-leg game in Austria.
It all changed in a 75-second burst, as the Serbian champion's El Fardou Ben Nabouhane scored twice with close-range finishes. The forward's goals sent the 1991 European Cup winner through on away goals with a 2-2 aggregate score.
Red Star will be playing in the group stage for the first time in the 27-season Champions League era.
Two-time champion Benfica and 1988 European Cup winner PSV had an easier time to advance.
Benfica won 4-1 at PAOK Thessaloniki to go through 5-2 in aggregate, and PSV beat BATE Borisov 3-0 for a 6-2 aggregate score.
After a 1-1 draw in Lisbon last week, Benfica looked to be in trouble when it trailed Wednesday to a 13th-minute goal by PAOK's Aleksandar Prijovic.
Benfica hit back with three goals in a 19-minute spell before halftime, from Jardel, Eduardo Salvio and Pizzi. Salvio added a fourth in the second half for the 1961 and '62 champion.
The result means Benfica will be among the second-seeded teams in Thursday's group-stage draw, and pushed last season's runner-up Liverpool down into the third-seeded pot that also contains PSV.
The Dutch champion joins compatriot Ajax in the draw after easing past BATE, with Steven Bergwijn, Luuk de Jong and Mexico winger Hirving Lozano scoring the goals Wednesday.
Salzburg seemed finally destined for the group stage after forward Munas Dabbur netted a brace either side of halftime. The second came from a penalty that seemed harshly awarded when Hannes Wolf was tackled after cleanly getting off his shot.
Though Salzburg has won nine Austrian titles since being taken over and rebranded by energy drink maker Red Bull in 2005, it always failed to get through the Champions League qualifying rounds.
The six playoff losers enter the Europa League group-stage draw held Friday in Monaco.