Maccabi Tel Aviv star midfielder Eran Zahavi..
(photo credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV WEBSITE)
Maccabi Tel Aviv has a mountain to climb to reach the Europa League group stage after dropping to a 2-0 defeat to Asteras in the first leg of the playoffs in Greece on Thursday night.
After being knocked out in the third qualifying round of the Champions League earlier this month, the yellow-and-blue is hoping to save its continental campaign in the Europa League.
However, its hopes of progressing to the group stage for a second straight season suffered a massive blow on Thursday following the defeat in Greece.
Maccabi registered yet another disappointing showing and goals from Pablo Mazza (29) and Giorgos Zisopoulos (47) opened a significant advantage for Asteras, which overcame Mainz 05 of Germany 3-2 on aggregate in the Europa League third qualifying round.
Asteras's squad, which is built around international players - with the Greek team comprised of seven Argentinians, two Spaniards and two Belgians among other nationalities - was far from impressive, but made the most of its chances.
Maccabi, which will host the second leg in Larnaca, Cyprus next Thursday, is playing for the pride of Israeli soccer being the lone remaining representative in European competitions.
The early Europa League exits by Hapoel Tel Aviv, Hapoel Beersheba and Ironi Kiryat Shmona, and Maccabi's Champions League disappointment, already combine for the worst showing by Israeli clubs in continental competitions since the 2008/09 season.
Maccabi looked to control the game at the start, and it enjoyed the lion's share of possession in the early stages. However, it failed to translate its early dominance into scoring opportunities, with Asteras goalkeeper Kostas Theodoropoulos virtually out of work.
The hosts comfortably soaked up the pressure and looked to catch Maccabi off-guard with swift moves forward. It wasn't long before they were rewarded for their tactic, with Pablo Mazza finding the back of the net in the 29th minute with a left-footed volley from 10 meters out after Tel Aviv's hesitant defense failed to clear the danger.
The yellow-and-blue didn't truly test Theodoropoulos until first-half stoppage time, with Eran Zahavi unsurprisingly responsible for creating the threats.
The star midfielder brushed aside the criticism he has faced after his under-par start to the season, claiming ahead of the match that it is unreasonable to expect him to pick up where he left off at the end of last season and that he should only be judged at the end of the campaign.
He almost scored a goal that would have silenced the critics in the 46th minute, firing a clever shot from a free kick from 20 meters out, only to be denied by the 'keeper. Theodoropoulos had to be alert yet again seconds later to deny Zahavi's left-footed bullet.
Maccabi began the second half desperate to score an away goal, but after less than two minutes found itself trailing 2-0. Eden Ben-Basat cleared Pablo De Blasis's initial header from the goal-line, but the rebound was collected by Mazza who squared the ball for Giorgos Zisopoulos, with the Greek midfielder making no mistake from close range.
Maccabi finally reached another chance in the 57th minute, with Ben-Basat rounding the goalkeeper, but failing to find the target from a tight angle. Tel Aviv midfielder Nosa Igiebor squandered a golden opportunity with seven minutes to play when he chose to pass instead of shoot with the goal at his mercy and Maccabi breathed a huge sigh of relief moments later when Asteras's Jerónimo Barrales decided to try and chip Juan Pablo when he only had the 'keeper to beat.
Substitute Rade Prica tested Theodoropoulos once more in the 86thminute, but he couldn't find the back of the net and Maccabi will need a lot to go its way next week in Larnaca if its European season isn't to come to a premature ending.