Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The dream Maccabi Tel Aviv has been chasing for 11 years finally came true on Tuesday night when the yellow-andblue advanced to the Champions League group stage to cap a remarkable run.
The three-time defending Israeli champion drew 1-1 with FC Basel of Switzerland in the second leg of the playoffs at Bloomfield Stadium to progress on away goals after the first leg ended tied at 2-2 last week.
A resilient team effort was required to overcome a side which made it all the way to the Champions League round of 16 last season, although there is one man to which Maccabi owes its qualification more than any other.
Eran Zahavi took his tally in the qualifiers to seven goals in five matches with his team’s only goal of the match in the 24th minute, canceling out Luca Zuffi’s opener 13 minutes earlier.
Zahavi netted a brace in the first leg in Basel, including a 96th minute equalizer, while also scoring twice in the 2-0 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic in the second leg of the third qualifying round, overturning a 2-1 defeat from the first leg.
Maccabi’s only previous appearance in the group stage was in the 2004/05 season, with the last Israeli team to qualify for the group stage being Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2010/11.
Maccabi will find out on Thursday who it will face in the group stage, with European giants of the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all potential opponents.
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Maccabi has guaranteed itself a massive payday worth over NIS 50 million, from UEFA prize money alone, with the club set to make around another NIS 30 million from ticket sales and merchandising.
Basel looked to control proceedings from the first whistle and it wasn’t long before it was rewarded for its dominance.
Birkir Bjarnason was brought down on the edge of the box and Zuffi stepped up to send the free kick into the top right corner to give the visitors a crucial breakthrough after 11 minutes.
The Swiss champion very nearly doubled its advantage three minutes later, with Maccabi goalkeeper Juan Pablo standing his ground to clear Davide Calla’s dangerous attempt.
Maccabi hardly broke out of its own half in the first 15 minutes, but it required just one opportunity to level the score. Just as it did in the second leg against Plzen and in the first leg against Basel last week, Maccabi made the most of its chance when it arrived, with Zahavi beating veteran Argentinian defender Walter Samuel to Nikola Mitrovic’s sensational through ball and firing into the back of the net with his left foot after 24 minutes.
The hosts pushed forward for a second goal in the subsequent minutes, but were more than happy to enter the break tied at 1-1.
Tel Aviv got the second half off to an encouraging start, but Basel was always going to be more desperate to score and Taulant Xhaka’s shot from 20 meters out only missed the target by a few centimeters in the 65th minute.
With neither team finding the back of the net, the tie would ultimately come down to the final minutes, with Dor Micha squandering an excellent chance in the 88th minute.
ccabi very nearly conceded one minute later, but Jean-Paul Boetius somehow missed his attempt with only the ‘keeper to beat and the yellow-and-blue held on for a momentous achievement.
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