Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Champions League dream was dashed in the third qualifying round for a second straight year on Tuesday night following a 2-2 draw against NK Maribor in the second leg in Larnaca, Cyprus.
Maccabi was aiming to exorcise the ghosts of last season and record a comeback it has achieved only twice previously in club history after suffering a painful 1-0 defeat to Maribor in the first leg in Slovenia last week.
However, Maribor got off to the better start in Larnaca where Maccabi was hosting the match due to the security situation and took a deserved lead through Agim Ibraimi in the 35th minute.
The away goal left Tel Aviv in a deep hole, but the yellowand- blue got back into the game thanks to Tal Ben-Haim’s strike three minutes before the halftime break and moved into the lead following Eden Ben-Basat’s goal 10 minutes into the second half. However, Maribor equalized within a minute through Ibraimi and held on until the final whistle, leaving Maccabi and the 800 fans who traveled with the team to Cyprus heartbroken.
“We were much better than them but they had two chances and they scored two and we had 10 and also scored two,” explained Maccabi coach Oscar Garcia. “We played much better, but we couldn’t convert our chances and that was the difference.
We made unusual mistakes and that killed the game.”
A place in the Champions League playoffs would not have only left Tel Aviv within touching distance of reaching the group stage for just the second time in club history and the first since 2004, but would have also ensured the club an extended European campaign as the losers in the playoffs will automatically advance to the group stage of the Europa League.
However, Maccabi will now await Friday’s draw to discover who it will face in the Europa League playoffs, hoping to at least register success in continental soccer’s second most prestigious club competition.
“Maccabi has only once reached the group stage of the Champions League so it isn’t really a failure,” said Oscar. “We want to be a big club in Europe but we are not a big club in Europe. We are a big club in Israel and we want to progress.”
Maccabi was hoping to pressure Maribor from the start of the match, but instead found itself on the back foot for much of the first half. It took the visitors less than two minutes to threaten Juan Pablo’s goal, with Brazilian Tavares testing Tel Aviv’s Spanish goalkeeper with a powerful header.
The Slovenians would ultimately be rewarded for their dominance, taking the lead in the 35th minute through Ibraimi.
Juan Pablo couldn’t clear Damjan Bohar’s initial shot and Ibraimi pounced to net the opener.
However, Maccabi kick-started its challenge seven minutes later, with Ben-Haim making the most of Dor Micha’s exquisite through ball.
Maccabi was just one goal away from moving into the lead on aggregate after Ben-Basat scored his first goal for the club in the 54th minute. But the yellow-andblue lost its momentum almost immediately, with Ibraimi benefiting from a defensive lapse and heading in his second goal of the night.
Tel Aviv didn’t give up the chase, but it failed to convert its scoring opportunities time and again and will have to quickly turn its focus to the Europa League or it could soon find itself out of continental competitions altogether.
“We are sad and disappointed, but we must lift our heads,” said midfielder Eran Zahavi. “We failed in the Champions League.
We didn’t even have a chance to celebrate our second goal and we conceded an equalizer. That ruined our momentum. We were the better team in both legs, but we conceded goals we shouldn’t have and we didn’t make the most of our chances. Our goal was to reach the Champions League group stage, but we failed and now we need to focus on the Europa League.”