For the first time in six years, Israel will not have any representation in the group stages of European competitions after Maccabi Tel Aviv was knocked out in the Europa League playoffs on Thursday night.

Maccabi faced an uphill battle ahead of the second leg against Asteras of Greece in Larnaca, Cyprus after losing the first leg 2-0 on the road last week.

The yellow-and-blue found itself in what seemed like an unassailable deficit after Dorin Goian gave Asteras the lead in the 23rd minute, leaving Maccabi requiring four goals to advance.

However, the hosts equalized after just four minutes through Barak Badash and were within a goal of qualifying for the group stage after second half strikes by Eran Zahavi (54) and Rade Prica (75). Maccabi came close to finding the back of the net once more on several occasions, but it couldn’t complete a memorable comeback, winning the match 3-1 but losing the tie on away goals.

“It has been a difficult week and I can only be proud of the players.

They showed a lot of character,” said Maccabi sporting director Jordi Cruyff, who guided the team in Larnaca following coach Oscar Garcia’s resignation on Tuesday. “For sure there are a lot of things we can improve on, but I’m proud of everyone who gave their all today, even though in the end we came up just short.”

The 51-year-old Pako Ayestaran, who watched the match from the stands on Thursday, will replace Oscar.

Maccabi’s aggregate away-goal loss to Asteras together with the early Europa League exits by Hapoel Tel Aviv, Hapoel Beersheba and Ironi Kiryat Shmona combine for the worst showing by Israeli clubs in continental competitions since the 2008/09 season, which was also the last time no local side managed to make it through to a group stage.

Maccabi may have been the team in far more need of goals at the start of the second leg, but it was Asteras which created the better chances in the early stages.

The tie seemed to be as good as over when Goian was left unmarked by the Maccabi defense and headed in the opener.

Goian’s header left the hosts needing four goals to advance, but they gave themselves some hope with a swift equalizer four minutes later.

Zahavi’s superb through ball placed Badash in front of goal and the veteran striker made no mistake with his finish.

Maccabi couldn’t find the back of the net again until the halftime break, but it took the lead eight minutes into the second half through a Zahavi penalty after Thanasis Panteliadis lost the ball to Badash and then fouled him.

The yellow-and-blue barely created chances in the subsequent 20 minutes, but ultimately blew the tie wide open in the 75th minute, with substitute Tal Ben-Haim’s cross being parried right to the feet of substitute Prica, who calmly slotted in the rebound.

Maccabi had several chances to score the precious fourth goal, with Prica sending his volley just wide six minutes from time and Zahavi’s bullet from outside the box going out off the post after a Kostas Theodoropoulos save.

However, it wasn’t to be for Maccabi, which saw its European campaign end in bitter disappointment and far earlier than expected.

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