Three Israeli teams were in Europa League action last night – playing in the first leg of the final qualification round – and all three came home from potentially tricky road games with creditable draws.
In the evening’s first game, Maccabi Haifa and Ventspils played out a goalless draw in Latvia, but it was the Israeli side that was disappointed when the final whistle blew.
Despite a poor first half from the Greens, they had far more attempts on goal than the host team (17-4) and had eight shots on target compared to one for Ventspils. The best chance of the first half fell to Spanish striker Rayo, who hit the woodwork in the final minute of the half and followed up just seconds later with a free kick that sailed agonizingly over the crossbar.
Haifa upped the tempo in the second half, but despite laying siege to the Latvian goal just couldn’t get the breakthrough it needed.
Hapoel Tel Aviv, meanwhile, got off to a disastrous start against Romanian outfit Pandurii, when new signing Lucas Sasha – a Brazilian journeyman who failed to impress last season at CSKA Sofia – committed a needless foul on the edge of the penalty box in the fourth minute of the game. International midfielder Dan Nistor got his head to the resultant free kick and guided the ball past Daniel Amos in the Hapoel goal. After 30 minutes, however, Sasha made amends for his earlier transgression by scoring the equalizer – a wonderful free kick from 20 meters that caught the Romanian goalie off guard.
Hapoel came close to taking the lead just before half time, but American midfielder Bryan Gerzicich couldn’t direct his header into the goal. Hapoel’s best chance to win the game came after 60 minutes, when Schechter’s shot from 10 meters out was blocked by the goalie.
In the final game of the night, Hapoel Ramat Gan – playing in Europe for the first time in a decade – held Portuguese side Estoril to a 0-0 draw.
All three of the return legs will be played next week in Israel, with a place in the playoffs for the competition’s lucrative group stage up for grabs. Teams competing in the group stage are guaranteed at least another dozen games against attractive European rivals, leading to income from television broadcast rights and increased attendances.