For some 55 minutes 13,000 fans at Bloomfield Stadium last night were treated to probably one of the most exhilarating games they ever witnessed, when Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted Basel in the return leg of the Champions League qualifier. With a place in the playoffs for the group stage at stake, Maccabi dug itself out of an early hole but was unable ultimately to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first game last week in Switzerland as played to a 3-3 draw.
It started really badly for the home team: Reminiscent of a similar game in a similar stage against Swiss team Grasshoppers 18 years ago, Maccabi trailed after only five minutes. Valentin Stocker was brought down by Shiran Yieni in the penalty box, and Fabian Schar easily converted, sending Juan Pablo the wrong way.
Maccabi now needed three goals, but it was all Basel at this point, and Maccabi fans could hardly find anything to cheer about, concentrating on booing Egyptian star Mohamed Salah every time he touched the ball. Salah, who said before the game that "the flag of the occupation shouldn't be allowed to make it to the Champions League," might have heard that a Maccabi fan was arrested before the game outside the stadium when he tried to approach the Egyptian prodigy; still, he seemed hardly rattled when he got his chance in the 22nd minute. Hapoel Tel Aviv fans might have taken particular pleasure in this goal, beginning as it did when their former player, Eran Zahavi sloppily conceded a ball on the half line, allowing Stocker to run at goal, and lay a beautiful ball for the Egyptian striker, who scored from inside the box.
Now Maccabi needed four goals to advance, but it got even worse in the 32nd minute. Stocker, one of Basel's best performers of the night, sent a good ball into the box where Streller, laid it softly for Diaz, whose powerful strike from outside the box left Juan Pablo absolutely no chance.
3-0 Basel. Over and out? Not quite.
Two minutes after Basel's third, Maccabi got a lifeline: Barak Yitzhaki was sent clear in the box and forced an excellent save from goalkeeper Sommer. Unfortunately for Basel, the rebound hit Schar and bounced back into his net, to make it 3-1. Another two minutes passed and the stadium erupted with another Maccabi goal. Eran Zahavi brilliantly eluded a Swiss defender, and made up for his earlier mistake, by thundering the ball past Sommer from inside the box.
Maccabi and their fans were now brimming with belief in themselves. Tal Ben Haim, another former Hapoel player, hit a powerful volley from the edge of the box, forcing Sommer to another brilliant save. Maccabi heaped the pressure on Basel but could not score again until the half time whistle went off.
The second half was more of the same. Basel practically couldn't touch the ball, and it was all Maccabi, which didn't allow the visitors time to breath. The 55th minute equalizer was yet another quality goal. Yitzhaki crossed into the box, a Swiss defender headed it out, but it fell sweetly to Radi, who volleyed it low into the right corner.
Maccabi now seemed to be able to score the extra two goals it needed, but after ten more minutes of pressure, coach Paulo Sousa decided to pull out Eran Zahavi. Maccabi then withered and fell completely flat on the 74th minute, when he withdrew Tal Ben Haim, depriving his team of his two most dangerous players. A minute later, Salah was substituted, earning himself a yellow card on his way off, possibly for provoking the fans.
As the minutes ticked on, Maccabi couldn't find their way into the box. Only a minute before the end of regulation, Maccabi had one more chance when Eitan Tibi powerfully headed from close range, only to be frustrated by Sommer.
Maccabi now heads for the Europa League playoffs, while Basel gets a chance to make it to the group stage.
Basel President Bernard Heusler was full of praise for Maccabi and the fans after the match. "It was a crazy game. It was simply unbelievable how Maccabi came back, he said. I have deep respect for the team and for the fans, and the way they supported their team."
Sousa was obviously disappointed but praised his players. "What can I say? I'm proud of my players they way they reacted with aggressiveness, he said. I think we present quality. Basel tried to kill the game and reduce the rhythm."
Asked about his changes, he responded, "We needed to refresh the team. Our opponent's coach added another defensive player, which made it much harder for us. They didn't allow us too many opportunities. If we had scored another goal they would have become nervous. Still, this is a message to the other teams in the league."