Soccer / Champions League Qualifier / Momentary lapse costs dearly
Last season's Cinderella team Hapoel Kiryat Shmona wakes up after the ball as it makes European debut in Slovakia.
This was a game Kiryat Shmona should have won. The Israeli champion's first game in Europe, a 1-0 defeat to MSK Zilina of Slovakia at the Stadion pod Dubnom, highlighted the team's lack of experience at this level. After controlling the game for two-thirds of the second half and seconds after goalkeeper Danny Amos had made a heroic save from a controversial penalty, Kiryat Shmona's defense fell into a brief slumber and let in a soft goal.
All in all, the game was a finely balanced affair, with neither team demonstratively better.
The home side, which made the Champions League group stage two years ago, started stronger and had a handful of chances before Jozef Piacek headed against the top of Amos' crossbar in the 10th minute.
Five minutes later, Kiryat Shmona had its first chance, but Shimon Abuhatzira's fine drive from outside the box was well saved.
Kiryat Shmona gradually took control of the finely balanced game, launching a series of hopeful forays that almost produced goals. Although obviously rusty in their first competitive game of the season, the Kiryat Shmona players appeared organized and confident. David Solari should have put the Israeli team ahead in the 37th minute, but his weak shot demonstrated the importance of match practice.
Kiryat Shmona kept possession for long spells of the game with short passes that frustrated the opposition, but time and again the crucial defense-splitting pass was lacking and attacks usually broke down outside the host's penalty area.
The visitors came agonizingly close to scoring just before the hour, but Barak Badash's glanced header from Solari's corner came back off the goalpost, only for Shir Tzedek to fire the rebound onto Zilina's crossbar. Kiryat Shmona picked up the rather cumbersome pace and took control of the game after the break.
In the 67th minute, Amos saved his team, diving low to block a powerful drive, then acrobatically leaping skyward to parry Gambian striker Momodou Ceesay's shot on the rebound.
Although Shimon Abuhatzira blasted narrowly over the bar from 30 meters out five minutes later, the Israeli team was beginning to lose concentration - a flaw that ultimately decided the game.
In the 80th minute, Zilina was awarded a questionable penalty when Peruvian forward Jean Deza broke into Kiryat Shmona's penalty box and then appeared to stumble as El'ad Gabai came in to tackle, but made no contact. An enraged Gabai was yellow-carded for a foul that never was, and the hosts had a penalty.
Amos looked set to be Kiryat Shmona's hero as he dived low to his left to somehow save Ricardo Nunes' penalty shot. Yet seconds later the hosts scored the game's only goal as Piacek rose above the momentarily negligent Israeli defense to head home the ensuing corner.
It was a sucker punch that could cost Kiryat Shmona dearly if it fails to win next Tuesday's return game at Haifa's Kiryat Eliezer stadium by less than a two-goal margin.