Maccabi Haifa took a giant step toward the lucrative group stage of the Europa League last night, recording a 2-0 home victory over Astra Giurgiu of Romania in the first leg of their playoff clash.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Astra is a relatively easy hurdle for the Greens to overcome. But just ask Hapoel Tel Aviv - which was shocked in the previous round of the competition by Pandurii - about beatable Romanian opposition.
Ahead of last night’s game, coach Arik Benado warned his players about the danger of conceding an away goal. In his pre-match training sessions, the emphasis was very much on the defensive aspects of the game.
Haifa had the upper hand over the team currently topping the Romanian league. Backed by a capacity crowd of 12,500 supporters, Hen Ezra was the main threat to the visitors’ goal, seeing two shots saved in the opening 15 minutes.
It took Haifa 30 minutes to break down the Astra defense, but when the goal eventually arrived it was a beauty. Ruben Rayos, the Spanish midfielder who has already proved that he can score goals as well as create them, stepped up to take a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. His curling shot eluded the outstretched fingers of Astra goalkeeper Silviu Lung to spark wild celebrations on the pitch and in the stands.
Rayos had a chance to double his tally and his team’s advantage four minutes before the end of the first half, when Haifa was awarded a penalty by Dutch referee Kevin Blom for a blatant handball. Uncharacteristically, however, Rayos’ spot kick was weak and the goalie was easily able to save.
The tempo dropped in the second half, but with Haifa continuing to dominate – the Greens had 11 shots on target to Astra’s two – the second goal eventually arrived in the 61st minute. Ezra’s wayward pass to Alon Turgeman somehow found its intended target and the young striker’s shot flew into the net after clipping the inside of the post.
Haifa had several more chances to put the two-legged clash beyond Astra, but some lax finishing ensured that only the two-goal advantage was maintained. The most notable miss of the evening was by Shimon Abuhatzira in the 72nd minute. Finding himself alone in front of goal with just the keeper to beat, Abuhatzira someone contrived to roll his shot wide of the post.
That miss should not prevent Haifa from joining Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group stages of the competition, however. Barring a disaster in Romania next week, Israel will have two representative in the group stages for the first time.
In other Europa League games last night, English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur – playing without Gareth Bale, who is expected to become the world’s most expensive player if and when he completes a move to Real Madrid – thrashed Dinamo Tbilisi 5-0 in Georgia. New signing Roberto Soldado scored twice for Spurs.