Maccabi Haifa successfully avoided the pitfalls of a muddy field — and an opponent with nothing to lose — to book its place in the group stage of the Europa League last night. A 1-1 draw against Astra Giurgiu of Romania gave Haifa a 3-1 aggregate victory and ensured that it would be in today’s draw for the group stage of the competition, alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The Greens travelled to Romania having recorded a 2-0 victory in the home leg last week and were clear favorites to progress.
Right from the first whistle, the Haifa players showed just how hungry they are for success. Playing on a pitch that resembled Woodstock more than Wembley, making accurate play close to impossible, Arik Benado’s charges did what was required of them and, in so doing, highlighted just what makes them more dangerous that Tel Aviv: their hunger. The players in green fought for every ball, performed their defensive duties with dedication and weren’t afraid to get down and dirty when the need arose.
Despite Haifa’s supremacy in every department, it was the home team that took the lead. The Haifa defense failed to deal with acorner kick, Serbian goalkeeper Bojan Saranov mistimed his jump and Marius Gaman was on hand to stab the ball home.
Haifa, however, didn’t panic and restored its two-goal cushion six minutes later. For the second European game in row, it was Ruben Rayos, Haifa’s Spanish midfielder, who scored. And for the second week in a row, it was a superb free kick from just outside the box that did the damage.
With an away goal in the bag, Haifa went into cruise control for the rest of the match, rarely threatening the Romanians’ goal but, at the same time, never looking in danger of conceding the three goals that Astra needed.
The draw for the group stage will take place today in Zurich and will be broadcast live on Sport 1 at 1 P.M.