Reigning Israeli champion Hapoel Kiryat Shemona FC entered into uncharted waters last night as they took on the Slovakian side MSK Zilina in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round match at Stadión pod Dubnom in Zilina.
Zilina, a veteran club of five Champions League appearances took home the Slovakian domestic double last season winning both the League Cup and Title for the first time in the franchise’s history.
However, Kiryat Shemona looked more than at home in Slovakia in a very tightly played 1-0 defeat.
For much of the first half and into the second, the Israeli club held its own against a strong opponent, even outplaying Zilina at times. But the Israelis squandered too many chances that could have given them a nice lead heading back to the Holy Land for next week’s second leg.
Though on paper Zilina looks to be the favorite in this tie, the club’s Dutch coach Frans Adelaar had only praise for the Israeli title-holders.
“This will be a very tough battle against a team that won their league by a wide margin,” Adelaar said. “Kiryat Shemona has a very strong and steady defense, but they also have a dangerous offense as well.”
And this was the case as Shimon Abuhatzera had a solid strike in the 18th minute but was swatted away by Zilina second choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
David Solari had a quality chance in the 37th minute unloading an absolute laser, but the strike missed its mark.
The second half saw more pressure by Kiryat Shemona when in the 58th minute Solari lifted a corner into the Zilina box and after a mad scramble ensued the ball ricocheted off of the crossbar.
The most dangerous weapon for Zilina, Momodou Ceesay had a bunch of opportunities including good chances in the 18th and 67th minute where Kiryat Shemona ’keeper had to make a point-blank save to keep the match knotted up at 0-0.
However, in the 80th minute Zilina was awarded an extremely questionable penalty as the Spanish referee Cesar Fernandez ruled that El’ad Gabai had interfered with a Zilina player in the box.
Danny Amos was up to the task and made a brilliant save on Ricardo Nunez’s penalty, but as Kiryat Shemona was celebrating an unmarked Jozef Piacek headed home the game winner for Zilina off of a corner kick.
In order for Kiryat Shemona to advance in the competition they will need to win at least this second qualifying round where if they lose in the third round of play they will at least advance to take part in the UEFA Europa League playoffs.
If Kiryat Shemona gets past both the second and third round UEFA Champions League qualifying action, but lose in the Playoffs, then they will advance automatically into the group stages of the Europa League.
For Kiryat Shemona, under new coach Gili Landau, making it past Zilinia would be a huge accomplishment, however his players are confident that they are up for the challenge.
“I truly believe that we can advance at least one round, “ said forward Barak Badash.
“But we have to take into account that the Slovakian club has experience in these levels of competition and that they are an excellent team and well prepared.”
Kiryat Shemona whose roster is largely intact from its championship season will rely on not only Badash, but strikers Abuhetzera and Solari, midfielder Adrian Rochet along with defenders Shir Tzedek and Gabai and goalkeeper Amos.
The second leg will take place next Tuesday at Haifa’s Kiryat Eliezer Stadium.