Two late goals dragged Gent back from the brink in an enthralling Champions League last-16 tie against Wolfsburg.
The impressive Julian Draxler started and finished a rapid counter-attack to break the deadlock.
Draxler doubled his side’s lead, taking advantage of poor defending to coolly chip Matz Sels, before Max Kruse guided home Christian Trasch’s cross.
But Sven Kums’ brilliant late strike and Kalifa Coulibaly’s header gave the underdogs hope of progressing.
Relive Wolfsburg’s victory over Gent
The visitors were in firm control when they led 3-0 lead after 60 minutes, but the Belgians fought back, displaying the spirit that saw them beat both Valencia and Lyon in the group stage.
But Wolfsburg’s away goals, combined with their enviable home record – they won all three of this season’s group games at the Volkswagen Arena, make the German cup winners favourites to progress.
The second leg takes place on 8 March.
Stepping into the unknown
Both teams were in alien territory having never progressed to this stage of the competition, but it is Gent’s story which is most extraordinary.
Threatened with bankruptcy in 1999, they won their first domestic title last season and eliminated two of Europe’s elite clubs in the group stage to become the first Belgian team to reach the knockout stages.
Gent’s annual turnover of £24m is a fifth of Wolfsburg’s and, while at times that financial gulf was apparent on the pitch, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s men showed the mental toughness their manager had repeatedly praised them for before the match.
Premier League descends on Gent
Representatives of 13 Premier League clubs were at the game to watch the home side’s leading scorer Laurent Depoitre, according to Gent president Ivan de Witte.
De Witte said he “can’t name a price” for the 27-year-old, but while the striker showed glimpses of quality – a cute knockback for Thomas Foket and a great turn on the halfway line – it was another player who caught the eye.
Draxler, the man charged with replacing Kevin de Bruyne after the playmaker’s departure to Manchester City, turned the tie in his team’s favour.
He brilliantly beat his man on the halfway line to spark the move that led to his first goal, then nutmegged Stefan Mitrovic in the lead-up to his second.
After the match, the 22-year-old was asked about the Premier League, but an imminent move to England seems unlikely for a player who only joined Wolfsburg for £25m in the summer.
Man of the match – Julian Draxler
The stats you need to know
- Draxler scored his first Champions League away goals since October 2013.
- Draxler has scored in successive competitive appearances for the first time since May 2013.
- Gent kept up their record of scoring in every Champions League game they have played in this season.
Wolfsburg playmaker Julian Draxler: “We played a very good game. The last two goals for Gent weren’t so good, but we have all possibilities to go through to the next round.
“I’m always happy when I’m scoring and, of course, the Champions League is something special for me. I like to play in this tournament. Yes, it’s a good result for us and if we play like that in the second leg we will go through.”