Hapoel Tel Aviv effectively booked its place in the group stage of a European competition for the sixth time in seven years on Thursday night, defeating F91 Dudelange 3-1 in Luxembourg in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs.

Hapoel scored at will in the first half, taking a 3-1 lead after just 26 minutes through an Elroei Cohen goal.

The Reds dropped a couple of gears after that and should have little trouble securing their progress to the Europa League group stage when they host the return leg at Bloomfield Stadium next Thursday.

Hapoel has played in the group stage of the UEFA Cup/Europa League four times since 2006 (2006/07, 2007/08, 2009/10 2011/12) and also reached the Champions League groups in 2010/11.

It is truly baffling how the Luxembourg champion managed to overcome Red Bull Salzburg of Austria in the second qualifying round of the Champions League earlier this season as Hapoel basically did as it pleased at the start of the match and could have won by a far greater margin had it really wanted to.

It took the visitors less than four minutes to create the breakthrough, with Omer Damari easily sprinting past his marker on the right flank before squaring the ball into the box for Dudelange’s Jean-Philippe Caillet to tuck into his own net.

Damari will probably appear in Caillet’s nightmares in the coming days after the defender lost track of him once more in the 18th minute and fouled him in the box.

Tal Ben-Haim stepped up to convert the penalty, but Hapoel got complacent and just a minute later Aurelien Joachim punished the Reds with a nifty finish in the penalty area.

Conceding a goal was not in Hapoel’s plans and it wasn’t long before the visitors regained their two-goal advantage and ensured they will be able to take it easy in the second leg next week.

Cohen expertly brought down Salim Toama’s pass and slotted in Hapoel’s third goal of the night, giving Tel Aviv what is surely an unassailable margin to all but guarantee the club continental soccer deep into the winter.

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