Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s Champions League dream is alive and kicking after it advanced to the third qualifying round on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over MSK Zilina at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in Haifa, overturning a 1-0 first-leg defeat from last week.

Kiryat Shmona dominated the proceedings once more, but it had to wait until late in the match to secure its progress.

A mix of fortune and fortitude saw Zilina hold on to its 1-0 lead from Slovakia last week until the 70th minute, when an own-goal by Vladimir Leitner gave the hosts the elusive breakthrough before Shimon Abu Hazeira clinched the tie with a powerful effort eight minutes later.

“We deserved this victory,” said Kiryat Shmona coach Gili Landau, who will not have long to prepare for the third qualifying round first leg next week.

“The name of the game was patience. We tried to decide the match in the first 10 minutes, but we squandered our chances and we had to be patient after that. We continued to move the ball against a very compact defense and ultimately it paid off.”

Kiryat Shmona will host Azerbaijan’s Neftci PFK in the first leg of the third qualifying round next week, with Neftci drawing 2-2 at Georgia’s FC Zestafoni on Tuesday to complete a 5-2 aggregate win.

By qualifying for the next round, the surprise Israeli champion has guaranteed itself a place in the Europa League playoffs even if it loses in the Champions League third round of qualifying.

Progress to the Champions League playoffs with a triumph over Neftci will book the northerners – at the very least – a place in the Europa League group stage.

“This was the most important match in our club’s history,” said club owner Izzy Sheratzky. “We played well and deserved to win and now we face a new battle. The next round is especially important as we can secure ourselves an extended continental campaign.”

Abu Hazeira failed to hit the target with either of his two chances in the first five minutes and Adrian Rochet was the next Kiryat Shmona player to fire wayward from close range in the 14th minute.

A defensive lapse by Lietner in the 27th minute almost cost the visitors dearly, but David Solari left the Slovaks unpunished, sending his shot centimeters wide of the upright.

Kiryat Shmona continued to pile the pressure at the start of the second half, but was slowly beginning to get frustrated, as demonstrated by Solari’s over-hit shot from long range in the 58th minute.

It seemed like it might not be Kiryat Shmona’s day when Salah Hasarma, who only drank and ate midway through the match as he was fasting due to the Ramadan, blasted a close-range effort against the crossbar in the 64th minute.

However, the deadlock was broken six minutes later when man-of-the-match Elad Gabai tortured his defender once more on the right flank before sending in a cross Lietner could not handle, bumbling the ball into his own net.

The opener was all the impetus Kiryat Shmona needed to go on and win the tie, with Abu Hazeira smashing the ball beyond goalkeeper Martin Dubravka after Lietner turned it over in his own half.

“This was a once in a lifetime match and we gave our all,” Gabai said. “We took a significant step forward with this win. I didn’t even want to consider the option that we might not progress.”

With Zilina conquered, Landau will happily turn his attention to Neftci, a club with a budget around four times that of Kiryat Shmona’s.

“I’m very pleased as this gives us confidence and momentum for the rest of the competition,” Landau said.

“We looked okay, but we still have plenty of room for improvement. There are no easy matches in this competition and we have no reason to be in a euphoric mood ahead of next week.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger