In the end, Maccabi Haifa hardly needed to break a sweat against Red Bull Salzburg in their Champions League playoff Tuesday night, coming out 3-0 victors over an opposition that was barely there.
Ramat Gan stadium was a sea of green as the game began, with the expectant fans making themselves heard.
Surprisingly, Haifa left promising young striker Shlomi Arbeitman on the bench, opting for Georgian point man Vladimir Dvalishvili supported by Mohammad Ghadir in attack. The first omen of what was to be came in the third minute, when the lax Austrian defense gave the ball away, only for Yaniv Katan to panic instead of aiming for goal.
The visitors showed some imagination early on, as Haifa's defensive midfield - especially Biram Kayal, committed too many unnecessary fouls. But they lacked accuracy, and when they did get in the box, they found Haifa goalkeeper Nir Davidovich to be equal to the challenge.
Haifa played like they were not in the game for the first 15 minutes, although Salzburg's defense was already looking brittle. In the 21st minute Haifa's Colombian midfielder John Culma was yellow carded for a foul in the middle of the field, and will miss Haifa's next match in the competition.
Haifa made several attempts to launch attacks, but far too slowly and all too often the final pass went astray. In the 25th minute, Kayal received a yellow card for one too many fouls.
Haifa took the lead in the 31st minute when Dvalishvili picked up Yaniv Katan's through pass at the edge of the penalty area, and dribbled past two confused defenders before coolly stroking the ball home with his left foot.
The game fell asleep in the first half's waning minutes, as Haifa played a safe tactical game that effectively stifled the Austrian midfield.
The tempo picked up slightly after the break, and in the 51st minute 17-year-old Eyal Golasa and Katan linked well to set up Kayal, whose powerhouse drive from outside the box was parried for a corner. A minute later, the loosely marked Golasa should have made the victory safe, but he sliced his header wide.
Haifa pressed forward again, and after 56 minutes, Golasa - who was about to be substituted - tried a hopeful shot from 30 meters that took a wicked deflection off an Austrian defender past the hapless Salzburg goalkeeper Eddie Gustafsson.
In a double substitution on the hour, Alon Harazi entered the fray for what may be the 38-year-old's swan song in a green jersey, while Brazilian-born midfielder Gustavo Boccoli replaced Golasa. With qualification now all but Haifa's, the Georgian was replaced by midfielder Lior Rafaelov a few minutes later.
Ghadir was rewarded for a workmanlike performance in the last minute of regular time, when he was gifted Haifa's third goal as Gustafsson got into a tangle with one of his defenders and fumbled, leaving the young striker the simple task of pushing the ball into an unguarded net.
Haifa coach Elisha Levy now has to plan his European campaign knowing that Tuesday night's performance will not suffice against quality opposition.
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