Maccabi Haifa midfielder Ataa Jaber (right) celebrates with teammates after scoring his side’s second goal in last night’s 3-2 win over Hapoel Haifa..
(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Maccabi Haifa set the standard for Israeli clubs in European competition in the first decade of the 21st century.
Two appearances in the Champions League group stage, one appearance in the Europa League group stage and participation in continental competition in eight of 10 seasons meant Haifa was by far the most successful Israeli side in Europe.
That has dramatically changed over recent years, with the Greens ending a three-year drought without continental action this season, its longest such spell since making its debut in Europe in 1993.
After being away from European action for so long, the last thing Haifa wants is to see its campaign already end at the first hurdle.
However, it enters Thursday’s second qualifying round second leg at Nomme Kalju of Estonia in an awkward position after being held to a disappointing 1-1 home draw in Netanya in the first leg last week.
Haifa controlled the first leg, but conceded a goal in the first minute of the second half, with Janar Toomet making the most of some lax defending.
Haifa thought it had equalized through Nikita Rukavytsya in the 58th minute, but his header was wrongly disallowed for offside.
Haifa finally leveled the score in the 70th minute when Gili Vermouth picked up the ball on the edge of the box and fired an unstoppable shot into the bottom left corner.
As last season’s State Cup holder, Haifa only entered the competition in the second qualifying round. But despite ending 2015/16 on a high with the cup triumph, last season was a disappointment for Haifa.
Should Haifa advance to the third qualifying round it, will next come up against the winner of the tie between Zimbru Chisinau of Moldova and Osmanlıspor of Turkey. The first leg in Moldova ended in a 2-2 draw.
“I was disappointed with the result in the first leg but there were some positives,” said Haifa coach Roni Levy. “We are at a very early stage of the season and we are still not 100 percent ready. We are missing some players and we are in the midst of a process. It will take us some time until we gel.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem enter their second legs on Thursday in a better position than Haifa, but have also got plenty of work to do to book their spots in the next round.
A stoppage-time equalizer by Yossi Benayoun earned Maccabi a 1-1 draw at Kairat Almaty in Kazakhstan last week, and should the yellow-and-blue secure its progress in the second leg in Netanya, it will next face Pandurii Targu Jiu of Romania.
The first leg would be played in Romania on July 28, with the second leg to take place a week later.
Beitar Jerusalem registered a 1-0 victory over Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus in the first leg at Teddy Stadium last Thursday, and if it can progress it will next face the winner of the second qualifying round tie between Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia and Jelgava of Latvia. The first leg in Slovakia ended in a 0-0 draw.
“The result in the first leg is excellent for us, but we must remember it was only the first half of the tie,” said Beitar coach Ran Ben-Shimon, who coached at AE K Larnaca in Cyprus in 2012/13. “I know the stadium in Nicosia well and we will face a really tough battle.”