(photo credit: AP [file])
The approximately 1,000 Maccabi Haifa fans who attended Wednesday night's Champions League qualifier first leg against Liverpool at Anfield were breathlessly waiting for the final whistle.
After Brazilian Gustavo Boccoli had given the visitors a surprising 1-0 lead in the 29th minute, Craig Bellamy evened the score four minutes later.
Maccabi Haifa played the English Premier League club to a draw until there was just two minutes before injury time.
The hopes of Haifa's fans in stands, players and coaches on the field and supporters in Israel watching on TV were crushed when Chilean Mark Gonzalez was left unmarked in the penalty area and scored his first goal for Liverpool past 'keeper Nir Davidovich from eight meters out.
"I'm very disappointed with this result, with the second goal so close to the end of the game, but the result will still give us something to dream about in the second game," said Roni Levy, Maccabi Haifa's head coach, after the game.
"For us, a small club, to take the lead at a big club like this was exceptional. We felt that we worked hard and deserved more. A draw would really have given our dreams a boost," he added. "If the [second] game was in Israel, we would have a better chance. However, as the game is going to be at a neutral ground, it's going to be very difficult indeed.
"Playing in Israel would have given us a better chance to make a surprise result because when teams come to our home, it's a different feel, different atmosphere and we have more power."
Unsurprisingly, when asked if he had any preference to where the return leg should be played, he responded, "Israel."
"I'm coach and all I think about is football, and I let others deal with this issue while I concentrate on the football," he concluded.
UEFA decided on July 31 that Maccabi Haifa could not host the return leg in the Tel Aviv area, and has since announced that no UEFAsanctioned match will be allowed to be played in Israel until further notice.
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who was the first to speak out against playing in Israel following the July 28 draw, said he had no preference to where the game will be played, as long as it is in a safe place.
"It was important [UEFA] said we will not travel to Israel, and that's the right decision," Benitez said. "Now we need to know as soon as possible where the game will be played. We have some of the best supporters in the world and it's important they know where it will be so they can prepare to come and watch us."
Avi Cohen, president of the Israeli Football Players Association and a former Liverpool player who spent two seasons at Anfield, said that UEFA's decision is "unfair" and that the game could have been played in Tel Aviv.
"The people who are not living in Israel do not understand Tel Aviv is out of the war," Cohen told BBC Radio. "You do everything - you lie on the beach and go to discos. It is like living in London. It is very disappointing not to get Liverpool in Tel Aviv, it is unfair because they reduce the chances of Maccabi Haifa or any team in Israel to qualify. Liverpool are strong but away they are not so strong, so they give Liverpool an advantage."
Cohen also noted that Maccabi Haifa's training for the crucial tie was severely disrupted by the conflict. "It's very, very difficult because Maccabi Haifa are from the north and they have the missiles falling on houses and the streets and they didn't have a session in Haifa," he said.
"Maccabi Haifa need to play at Anfield and they are trying to do the impossible thing to try to get a good result..."
Outside the stadium
Before the match, the Maccabi Haifa fans and Liverpool fans congregated together outside the stadium, swapping scarves and mementos.
After Haifa's supporters began arriving in Liverpool Tuesday night, local news reports said there was a great atmosphere in and around the bars and pubs in the city.
Levy recognized the devotion of Maccabi Haifa's faithful. "We have a lot of fans in Israel and the world and even in this situation, they came to the game and I would like to thank them for the support," he said after the game.
On Wednesday, the visitors took in the attractions, including the Albert Docks and Goodison Park, home of the Everton Football Club, a fierce rival of Liverpool. Some even traveled to Manchester to visit Old Trafford.
While good cheer and sportsmanship characterized the interaction between the teams' fans, politics was found not far away from the soccer.
Following Bellamy's equalizer, police removed a Palestinian flag from a Liverpool fan in the front of the main grandstand.
A demonstration outside Anfield Wednesday night by the Liverpool Friends of Palestine, Merseyside Trade Union Council and the Merseyside Coalition against the war in the North tried to "show Israelis that we are totally opposed to their murderous activities in Lebanon."
Around 25 protesters handed out flyers condemning Israel and Britain and America's role, but they were kept apart from Haifa's supporters.
A Liverpool official was confident that his team's fans did not share the views expressed during the demonstration. "Liverpool fans don't care about politics, they just love their football and don't mind who they play," he said.
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