(photo credit: Uzi Gal)
Maccabi Haifa joined Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League group stage on
Thursday night, recording a comfortable 1-1 draw at Astra of Romania to claim a
3-1 aggregate win in the playoffs.
The Greens outplayed the Romanians in
the first leg at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium last week, but were forced to settle for
a two-goal triumph, leaving Astra with a fighting chance in the second
Astra was well placed to overturn the deficit after taking the lead
through Valerica Gaman in the 27th minute, ending Haifa’s hopes of recording a
sixth straight clean sheet in continental competition after crushing Xazar
Lankaran 10-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round and beating FK
Ventspils 3-0 in the third round.
However, Rayo caught Astra goalkeeper
Silviu Lung off guard with his free kick from a tight angle just seven minutes
later, breaking Romanian hearts.
“We accomplished our goal of reaching
the group stage and I’m proud of my players who didn’t panic despite going a
goal down,” said Haifa coach Arik Benado.
The group stage draw will take
place in Monaco on Friday, with the likes of Tottenham, Valencia and PSV
Eindhoven among the powerhouses possibly awaiting Israel’s
Haifa will be placed in the third seeding pot, with Tel
Aviv to be drawn from the fourth and final pot.
Tel Aviv was gifted a
berth to the group stage, benefiting from the consequences of a match-fixing
scandal in Ukraine way back in April 2008.
Earlier this month, Metalist
Kharkiv was kicked out of the Champions League by UEFA’s appeals committee after
the Ukraine federation found it guilty of manipulating a match played more than
five years ago.
As a result, last year’s Ukrainian league runner-up was
replaced by the opponent the Israeli champion should have met in the Europa
League playoffs, Greek side PAOK Thessaloniki, clearing the way for the
With its home stadium not being approved to host matches
in the Europa League playoffs, Astra was forced to play Haifa at the
sub-standard Stadionul Ceahlaul in Piatra Neamt and it displayed little impetus
on the swampy pitch.
Set pieces were always going to be key in such
conditions and the hosts took the lead from a corner kick in the 27th
Haifa ’keeper Bojan Saranov failed to clear the corner and the
rebound fell kindly for Gaman, who easily slotted in the opener.
orchestrating the show for Haifa so far this season, Rayo experienced a very
quiet start to the game, but was still in charge of the crucial away
The Spanish midfielder curled in a free-kick from a difficult
angle, with ’keeper Lung reaching the ball, only to parry it into his own
Rayo’s strike took all the steam out of the Romanians as it meant
they required three more goals to complete a comeback.
Haifa would have
recorded a victory had Alon Turgeman and Shimon Abuhazira not continued their
wasteful ways in front of goal.
However, the Greens couldn’t care less at
the final whistle, securing their progress to the Europa League group stage for
the second time in three seasons and continuing their promising start to
On TV: Europa League group draw (live on Sport 1 and Eurosport at 2 p.m.)