Three Israeli teams were poised to progress to the playoff round of the Europa League yesterday evening.
By the time the final whistle blew in all three games, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Ramat Gan had been unceremoniously dumped out of the competition, leaving Maccabi Haifa the sole Israeli victor on another frustrating night of soccer.
Haifa downed Latvian rival Ventspils 3-0 at home to win 3-0 on aggregate. Haifa will be joined in the playoff round for the money-spinning group stage of the Europa League by Maccabi Tel Aviv, which gets a place in the playoff as a consolation for its early elimination from the far more prestigious Champions League.
Despite not really getting into their stride for the first half an hour of the game, Haifa found itself in the lead in the 35th minute.
Yaniv Katan’s cross into the penalty box appeared to be going nowhere, but Ventspils defender Vitalijs Smirnovs’ attempt at a clearance went horribly wrong and he ended up slicing the ball into his own goal.
Six minutes later, Haifa doubled its lead – and this time there was no luck involved.
Striker Shimon Abuhatzira got onto the end of a long ball on the edge of the Latvian penalty area and, just when it looked like he was about to lose possession, he spotted Ruben Rayos hurtling into a goal-scoring position.
Abuhatzira’s pass was accurate and the Spaniard coolly slotted the ball into the net.
Out of reach
Haifa effectively put the game out of Ventspils’ reach seven minutes after halftime, when Rayos scored his second goal of the game – and the best goal that Haifa fans have seen from him since he joined over the summer. Starting out on the left wing, Rayos skipped past two players as if they we statues, drove into the penalty area and using the outside of his left boot slotted the ball into the net.
That was to be the goal of the game, as Haifa played out the final half hour on autopilot, safe in the knowledge that its place in the next round was firmly booked.
Hapoel Tel Aviv was in the best position of all three of the Israeli teams in action last light, having managed to score an away goal in its first-leg clash in Romania last week. And despite a scare in the second minute of play, when Bryan Gerzicich lost possession just outside his own penalty area, allowing Pandurii striker Deivydas Matulevicius an early scoring attempt, goalie Danny Amos was on hand to snuff out the danger.
Hapoel was very much under the coach in the opening exchanges, but took the lead against the run of play in the 21st minute. Ramzi Safouri – a 17-year-old Jaffa native who is playing in his first season for Hapoel – started the move off with a pass to Itay Schechter, who in turn passed to Orel Dgani, who spun round in the penalty box and was tripped by Marko Momcilovic. Omer Damari scored the resultant penalty kick to give Hapoel an early lead.
The Reds’ edge didn’t last very long, however, and within 14 minutes the visiting side was back on level terms. The Hapoel defense failed to deal with an innocuous looking free kick and Brazilian midfielder Eric Pereira was able to stab the ball into the goal.
Things went from bad to worse for Hapoel in the fifth minute of the second half. A breakout attack by the Romanian side saw Danny Amos save from Matulevicius, but substitute Alexandru Ciucur was first to the rebound and he scored the decisive goal.
Red faces, red card
After earning a highly respectable 0-0 draw in Portugal last week, Hapoel Ramat Gan had high hopes of progressing into the final playoff round. But things went awry almost from the start for coach Arik Gilrovich and his players. In the 11th minute, defender Avi Soffer fouled Joao Pedro inside the penalty box and was rightly shown the red card. Brazilian midfielder Evandro stepped up to convert the spot kick and to give Estoril a vital away goal.
Playing at a numerical disadvantage for 79 minutes was more than Ramat Gan could handle, however, and there was no way back into the match.
The draw for the final qualifying round of the Europa League will be held today at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
A total of 62 teams take part in the playoff round – 18 teams which were given byes to this stage, the 29 winners of the third qualification round matches and 15 teams that have already been eliminated from the Champions League, including Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The first legs of the playoff round will be played on August 22, with the return match a week later.