(photo credit: Uzi Gal and Adi Avishai)
After four straight seasons in the group stages of European soccer’s club competitions, Hapoel Tel Aviv suffered a shock exit in the Europa League third qualifying round on Thursday, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Pandurii Târgu Jiu of Romania following a 2-1 defeat at Bloomfield Stadium.
Hapoel took the lead courtesy of Omer Damari’s penalty in the 21st minute, but was second best throughout the night and fully deserved to be knocked out.
Maccabi Haifa joined Maccabi Tel Aviv in Friday’s playoff draw, beating FK Ventspils 3-0 at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium after drawing 0-0 in Latvia last week.
Hapoel Ramat Gan’s journey ended in the third qualifying round as expected, with GD Estoril-Praia of Portugal winning 1-0 at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Thursday.
Evandro scored the winner from the spot in the 11th minute, with Avi Soffer being sent off for committing the foul.
But the story of the night was Pandurii outplaying Hapoel at Bloomfield.
The hosts took the lead against the run of play in the 21st minute when Damari stepped up to score from the penalty spot, netting his fifth goal of the qualifying campaign.
However, Damari will not have a chance to add to his continental tally this season, with Pandurii deservedly turning the match on its head.
Hapoel ’keeper Danny Amos managed to save Eric Pereira’s initial shot in the 34th minute, but he could do nothing to deny the Brazilian's second attempt after Hapoel’s lax defense failed to clear the ball.
The tie was all tied at the break, but Pandurii went ahead four minutes into the second half. Amos was on hand to keep out Deivydas Matulevicius’s effort, but Alexandru Ciucur was first to the rebound to give the visitors a well-earned lead.
Pandurii’s second away goal meant Hapoel had to score twice to win the tie on aggregate, but it was the Romanians who came closer to scoring in the remainder of the encounter and ultimately comfortably clinched their place in the playoffs.
Haifa was in complete control from the first whistle on Thursday, but it had to wait until the 35th minute until it finally made the breakthrough.
Ventspils seemed more than happy to sit back and soak up the pressure, but it gifted Haifa the crucial opener with 10 minutes to play in the first half.
Yaniv Katan broke down the left and Latvian ’keeper Maksims Uvarenko was totally helpless after Vitalijs Smirnovs cut off the pass and sent it into the back of the net.
The tie was as good as over five minutes later, with Shimon Abuhazira doing all the hard work and perfectly laying the ball off for the incoming Rayo, who found the bottom left corner with his shot.
The Spanish midfielder picked up an injury in the process of scoring, but that didn’t stop him from netting his second goal of the night eight minutes after the break, casually beating two defenders before firing the hosts into an unassailable 3-0 lead.
“Ventspils gave us a tough time at the start,” said Katan. “Our goal was to progress and we did that. Clearly the next round is going to be a lot tougher.
“We will have to play a lot better, even though we weren’t too bad tonight. Our target is to reach the group stage, but much will depend on the draw we are handed.”