MACCABI HAIFA players celebrate after the team's 2-1 victory over Maccabi Netanya on Saturday, a result that enabled the Greens to secure a Europa League berth in the final match of the Israel Premier League season.
(photo credit: ARIEL SHALOM)
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba claimed the final two Europa League spots allocated to Israeli clubs on the final day of the Israel Premier League season.
The Greens defeated Maccabi Netanya 2-1 on Saturday, while Beersheba fell 4-0 to Maccabi Tel Aviv but still hung on to claim the final continental berth thanks to Haifa’s last-second win.
Maccabi Tel Aviv will be competing in Champions League qualification and will enter Europe’s premier club competition in the second round in late July, while the other Israeli representative Bnei Yehuda will be in Europa League qualifiers due to winning the State Cup earlier this month.
Maccabi Haifa just squeaked by Maccabi Netanya as Yarden Shua scored a free-kick goal in the 91st minute to send the Greens to Europe.
Marko Balbul was able to pull his Haifa squad together after having started the season with Fred Rutten manning the sidelines. After Rutten was relieved of his duties, Eli Gutman was named as the new coach, but due to health issues had to step down as owner Yakov Shahar turned the keys over to Balbul.
On Saturday, Shua handed the ball off to Neta Lavi in the 36th minute and the midfielder sent the ball off Netanya defender Tim Heubach and into the goal for a 1-0 lead.
However, Heubach made amends for his miscue midway through the second half when he sent a powerful header into the Haifa goal to draw even at 1-1.
But Shua, who joined the Greens in January from Bnei Yehuda, put his stamp on the season when he perfectly placed a 16-meter free kick behind Netanya ’keeper Dani Amos. The goal not only gave his side the win, but it also secured a place in continental play for the first time in three years.
“I never dreamed from where we began that we would be able to finish in second and get into Europe,” said a relieved Babul following the contest.
“The players deserve a lot of credit and I have to take my hat off to them for being able to come all the way from the depths to this point. This isn’t a one-man show as the staff did a great job and we brought significant players to the club in January. This was a sweet end to the season and our fans deserve it.”
Meanwhile, the yellow-and-blue blanked Beersheba at Turner Stadium in the southern capital. Tel Aviv controlled the tempo throughout the 90 minutes to record a convincing victory while the hosts needed help from Haifa to book their ticket to Europe.
Veteran Nigerian midfielder John Ogu who was playing his final game for Beersheba found the back of the goal first, but unfortunately he put the ball behind his own ’keeper to give Maccabi a 1-0 lead.
Tel Aviv’s Ofir Davidzada crossed the ball into the box, but it glanced off of Ogu and behind Ariel Harush in the 23rd minute. Just before the break, Yonatan Cohen sent a magnificent left footed free kick behind the Beersheba ’keeper to double the advantage after 45 minutes.
Avi Rikan added more misery to Beersheba when he pounded home a ball off of the bar in the 62nd minute, while Eli Dasa joined the party in injury time when he found the back of the goal from the right side of the box to give Maccabi the 4-0 win.
The victory gave Vladimir Ivic’s club 89 points on the season, the most in league history after a 36-game campaign. (Maccabi Haifa notched 95 points in the 1993/94 season, but did so in 39 games, not 36)
Ivic complimented his players when told he had earned the coach-of-the-season award.
“I want to thank everyone for he honor, but without the players we wouldn’t have been able to have such a great campaign.”
Also, Hapoel Hadera defeated Bnei Yehuda 2-1 in dramatic fashion to wrap up its season on a high note as Lucio found the back of the goal in the 94th minute to give the surprise package the three points.
Dor Jan opened the scoring in the seventh minute for Bnei Yehuda, but Eylon Almog drew Hadera even off a Vitali Ganon free kick in the 49th minute.
However, it would be Lucio who had the last word in injury time to snatch the victory, both literal moral, for Hadera.
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