Maccabi Tel Aviv should have little trouble booking its place in the Champions League third qualifying round next week after beating Santa Coloma 1-0 in Andorra in the first leg of the second qualifying round on Tuesday.
The first leg was scheduled to take place at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, but due to the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza, Maccabi and Santa Coloma agreed to exchange venues for the home and away legs.
The yellow-and-blue was far from its best on Tuesday, but still moved to the brink of reaching the third qualifying round thanks to Rade Prica’s winner in the 63rd minute.
The two-time defending Israeli champion should comfortably secure its progress in the return leg next week, although it may well have to play that match abroad as well.
UEFA has already requested that Maccabi arrange an alternative venue for the second leg, which is scheduled to be played next Tuesday, should it rule in the coming days that the game can’t be played in Israel due to the security situation.
Assuming that will be the case, Maccabi will likely host the match in Cyprus where Israeli sides played during the second intifada.
While Tuesday’s performance was far from impressive, Maccabi can at least console itself in the victory and the fact that it avoided the embarrassment it experienced in Andorra seven years ago.
Tel Aviv’s 1-0 loss to the amateurs of Santa Coloma in the first leg of the UEFA Cup first qualifying round in the 2007/08 season will always remain one of the most humbling results recorded by an Israeli side in European competition.
Maccabi bounced back to win the second leg 4-0 and advance with ease, but the humiliating loss was never forgotten.
All 11 of Maccabi’s starters on Tuesday also played for the team last season, but the yellow-and-blue still looked disjointed for much of the match.
Maccabi has made only one significant signing so far this summer, bringing in Israel national team defender Yuval Spungin from Belgian club Mons.
Spungin didn’t play on Tuesday due to injury, leaving coach Oscar to use an identical lineup to the one his predecessor Paulo Sousa implemented during several matches last season.
Santa Coloma registered the first chance of the match after 14 minutes, with Juvenal firing just wide of the upright.
A minute later Maccabi reached its first opportunity of the game, but Eran Zahavi failed to latch on to the through ball.
Maccabi’s players were understandably rusty in their first match of the season, but they still would have expected a better display in the first half.
The hosts had no answer to Tal Ben- Haim’s pace down the left flank, but poor decision making by the Israeli forward saw him fire wide of goal instead of pass the ball in the 28th minute.
Maccabi would fail to register a single shot on target in the first half, with Santa Coloma reaching the better chances and both teams managing just three shots each towards goal in the first 45 minutes.
Santa Coloma continued to threaten Juan Pablo’s goal in the second half, with Iban Parra heading just wide from a corner five minutes after the break.
However, Maccabi soon seized control, and the breakthrough looked to be only a matter of time.
Zahavi somehow squandered another golden opportunity in the 56th minute when he couldn’t convert from three meters out, with Dor Micha firing wide four minutes later.
However, it took the visitors just three more minutes to score the opener, with Sheran Yeini crossing the ball from the right and Prica sending an unstoppable header into the bottom left corner.
Yeini may have been playing his final match for Maccabi on Tuesday, with Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem hoping to wrap up a deal for the defender in the coming days.
Maccabi never really came close to doubling its lead, but it will be content with the slender one-goal advantage ahead of next week’s second leg.