Less than 72 hours after its 4-0 drubbing against Espanyol, Maccabi Haifa hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv on Sunday night in what could prove to be its last chance to resurrect its Premier League campaign and qualify for European competition via the league.
Haifa, which has won eight, drawn eight and lost eight in its 24 league matches this season, held its own for the first 45 minutes of in the UEFA Cup Round-of-16 second leg in Barcelona, but three Espanyol goals in eight second-half minutes killed off the tie and ended the Israeli club's surprising UEFA Cup campaign.
"This isn't how I expected our run to end," Haifa coach Roni Levy said. "We were optimistic after the first half, but Espanyol were simply the better side. We had an excellent European campaign and played some fantastic matches.
"It's a pity it had to come to an end."
After 90 goalless minutes in the first leg and another 53 minutes without a score in the second leg, it took something special to break the deadlock.
Eight minutes after the interval, Ivan De La Pe a hit a sublime shot from 30 meters out that left Haifa 'keeper Nir Davidovitch with no chance and gave Espanyol the crucial breakthrough.
Six minutes later, Raul Tamudo doubled his team's lead when he beat Davidovitch and defender Haim Magrashvili to the ball and coolly slotted in his side's second.
And then less than two minutes later, De La Pe a found Luis Garcia with an exquisite pass and Garcia effectively booked his club's place in the UEFA Cup quarterfinals.
The Spanish club added another in injury time when Walter Pandiani headed in his side's fourth and ended Haifa's European season in embarrassing fashion.
"The final result doesn't tell the full story," Espanyol coach Ernesto Valverde said. "We scored four goals from four shots on goal. Haifa was excellent in the first half and was tactically sound. As soon as we scored our second goal, I knew the tie was over."
Maccabi forward Yaniv Katan couldn't hide his frustration at the end of the match. "This is a huge disappointment, but we must be realistic," he said.
"We played a superior side in Espanyol and we're not having our best season. We had a good European run and it is unfortunate it had to end in this way.
"I have no explanation for our collapse. We conceded four goals today and also four in our last match against Betar Jerusalem. I hope we manage to qualify for European play next season."
Levy tried to see the positive side of Thursday night's result and was adamant his team still has plenty to play for this season. "We will be under less pressure and strain now that we are out of the UEFA Cup," he said.
"We want to end our league campaign in the best possible way as a reigning champion should. We still have the State Cup to play for and there are players who will need to prove themselves in the remainder of the season if they would like to continue to play for Maccabi Haifa next season."
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