Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Cristian Battocchio.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
After winning seven of its eight matches in Europa League qualifying and drawing the other, Maccabi Tel Aviv was reminded it faces a challenge of a completely different magnitude in the group stage on Thursday, being outplayed in a 1-0 defeat at Slavia Prague in its opener.
Despite its excellent record, Maccabi didn’t impress in the qualifying rounds.
It couldn’t get away with mediocre play in Prague, with the hosts taking the lead through Tomas Necid in the 12th minute and never losing control.
The yellow-and-blue struggled to create chances and was ultimately fortunate to lose only by a single goal.
Maccabi also suffered a defeat in last season’s Europa group opener, squandering a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3 to Zenit St. Petersburg.
It never recovered, eventually finishing the group in third place. Thursday’s defeat in Prague was at least far less painful and Tel Aviv will be hoping to bounce back with an upset in its next match.
Matters will not get any easier for Maccabi in its second group game, with Spanish outfit Villarreal to visit the yellow-andblue in Netanya in two weeks. Villarreal has lost two of its first three La Liga games of the season, but is still considered to be the strongest team in Group A, defeating Astana of Kazakhstan 3-1 on Thursday.
Yuri Logvinenko’s 68th-minute equalizer drew Astana level after Nicola Sansone had given the Spaniards the lead in the 16th minute. But two goals in two minutes by substitutes Cedric Bakambu (75) and Denis Cheryshev (77) ensured Villarreal got off to a winning start.
Maccabi will complete its first round of matches at Astana before hosting the Kazakh side and then Slavia in two home contests it will likely have to win to have any chance of finishing in the top two and advancing to the round of 32.
The yellow-and-blue will end the group stage at Villarreal on December 7.
Maccabi struggled from the start on Thursday, despite the five changes made to the lineup by coach Jordi Cruyff.
French-born defender Jean-Sylvain Babin, who joined on a one-year loan deal from Spanish club Sporting de Gijon, was handed his debut, while Eliran Atar made his first start since returning to the club from Maccabi Haifa.
It would be Slavia though, which scored with its first real chance of the match in the 12th minute. Eduard Sobol crossed the ball from the left and Necid escaped his marker to head in the opener.
The hosts were the more dangerous side throughout the first half, with Necid somehow missing the target with the goal at his mercy nine minutes from the break.
Slavia maintained its control at the start of the second half, but Maccabi at least began to threaten the hosts. The yellowand- blue registered its best chance in the 60th minute, and unsurprisingly it fell to Vidar Orn Kjartansson.
The Icelandic striker netted both of Maccabi’s goals in Saturday’s 2-0 Premier League win over Bnei Sakhnin and also scored four goals in Europa League qualifying action earlier this summer. He couldn’t find the back of the net on Thursday though, rounding the ‘keeper on the hour mark but having his shot from a tight angle blocked by the Slavia defense.
Maccabi came no closer to an equalizer and will need to quickly register a significant improvement to have any hope of reaching the knockout rounds.
Late Thursday, Hapoel Beersheba hosted Lugano of Switzerland in their Europa group opener in a game that ended after press time.