Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Vidar Orn Kjartansson (left) celebrates with teammate Avi Rikan after scoring in last night’s 2-2 draw against Altach in Netanya which sent the yellow-and-blue through to the Europa League group stage..
(photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
Maccabi Tel Aviv breathed a huge sigh of relief on Thursday night after booking its place in the Europa League group stage in tense fashion, drawing 2-2 with Altach of Austria in Netanya for a 3-2 victory on aggregate.
Maccabi entered the second leg of the playoffs on the back of seven straight wins in qualifying and in complete control of the tie after triumphing 1-0 in Austria last week. But Thursday’s match was anything but plain sailing, with the yellow-and-blue twice coming back from behind to eke its way into the group stage of a continental competition for a third straight year and for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
Thanks to its consistent success in Europe, Maccabi will be in Pot 2 in Friday’s draw, boosting its chances of finishing in the top two and advancing to the round of 32. Hapoel Beersheba will also be in the draw, receiving a place in the Europa League group stage after being knocked out in the Champions League playoffs on Tuesday. Beersheba took the same route to the Europa groups last year and went on to progress to the round of 32 where it was beaten by Besiktas of Turkey.
Arsenal, AC Milan and Lyon are three of the illustrious teams that could be awaiting Israel’s two representatives.
While Beersheba was bitterly disappointed at being demoted to the Europa League, Maccabi celebrated in ecstatic fashion on Thursday after edging Altach.
Any notion that the yellow-and-blue would calmly cruise into the group stage was dashed in the 20th minute when the hosts gifted Altach the lead. Ofir Davidzada’s back-pass rolled under Eitan Tibi’s foot and Hannes Aigner slotted in the opener.
Vidar Orn Kjartansson, who scored Maccabi’s winner in Austria, equalized in the 41st minute, but Altach seized the lead on aggregate on away goals when Philipp Netzer gave the visitors a 2-1 advantage in the 59th minute, making the most of more shambolic defending. Altach returned the favor in the 73rd minute, with Tel Aviv captain Sheran Yeini scoring.
Maccabi couldn’t make it eight straight victories in qualification, but it couldn’t care less when the final whistle sounded and it secured its place in the group stage.
“We know we need to improve and we know we can play much better, but there are games when you just need to fight,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff. “The squad showed what they are worth. And if you look at the eight games we played in qualifying, seven wins and one draw is something we can be very happy with.”
Cruyff backed his defense despite its erratic display, explaining that “the defense is one of the main reasons why we made the group stage.”
Maccabi conceded just a single goal in its previous seven qualifiers.
New coaching consultant, former England manager Steve McClaren, watched the first half from the stands before joining Cruyff on the bench in the second half.
Cruyff said he was very happy to have McClaren at the club and he is now hoping Maccabi can bolster its squad before the close of the summer transfer window.
“We need to strengthen ourselves and build ourselves,” said Cruyff, who was delighted by the spirit displayed by his players following the 3-0 loss to Beitar Jerusalem in Premier League action on Sunday. “Our number one target is the league. Europe gives us good funds, fun games for our fans and nice games for the players, but our real objective must be the league. After two difficult years we must fight and compete for that and we need to strengthen ourselves so I’m really hoping for a good last week of August.”
Maccabi visits Ironi Kiryat Shmona in its second league match of the season on Sunday. On Saturday, Maccabi Petah Tikva hosts Hapoel Haifa, Maccabi Netanya welcomes Hapoel Acre, Hapoel Ra’anana visits Bnei Sakhnin and Bnei Yehuda goes to Hapoel Ashkelon.