Fate dealt very different hands yesterday to Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv, until last night Israel's two remaining delegates in Europa League qualification. Haifa blew a one-goal first-leg advantage and surrendered 3-1 to Dinamo Minsk in Belarus, while Tel Aviv overcame a similar deficit to vanquish Greece's Olympiacos at home.
Around 10,000 fans watched Vladimir Dvalishvili lift the visiting side to a 1-0 lead 27 minutes in, but other than his performance and those of teammates Yaniv Katan and Lior Refaelov, Haifa's first-half display was one to forget, eerily reminiscent of its atrocious Champions League display last season.
Just eight minutes later midfielder Oleg Strakhanovich beat Haifa keeper Amir Edri to level the score, and after the break, Hamburger SV's Anton Putsila - widely considered Belarus' top talent - put the home side ahead. Still, Haifa remained ahead on goal difference and needed only to hunker down on defense in order to advance.
Just as regular time ended, Gustavo Boccoli committed a penalty that would end up costing Haifa dearly. Putsila knocked in the free kick from 25 meters out, ending the match and with it, Haifa's European season.
"We didn't play well. We didn't play right," coach Elisha Levy said after the 3-2 loss on aggregate. "We have a lot of work left to do."
Later last night, at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa, striker Roberto Colautti made up for Tel Aviv's limp first half by striking just before the break to register the only goal of the match, heading in a Yoav Ziv pass past the outstretched fingers of Olympiacos keeper Antonios Nikopolides.
As the second half passed uneventfully and scorelessly, Greek journalists in the press box were heard muttering a single word over and over: "catastrophe." Maccabi earned a 2-1 win on aggregate and with it, a spot in the playoff round.
Olympiacos manager Ewald Lienen said afterward: "This is a great disappointment for me and for the club. We're all to blame for this loss, both me and the players. Our first half was truly bad, and in the second we made a few substitutions but didn't get any real scoring chances. To advance in European competition you have to score, and we weren't even close."
In the locker room next door, Tel Aviv manager Avi Nimni was jubilant. "We did something amazing. We overcame a major obstacle, and that'll give confidence to the players. Who's the next rival? I don't care. I want to enjoy this."
The playoff draw is this afternoon.
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