Maccabi Petah Tikva's first UEFA Cup Group B match ended in heartbreak Thursday evening, losing 2-1 to a powerful Palermo side at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
Petah Tikva dominated play for large parts of the game and can at least feel encouraged ahead of its three remaining group matches after playing on par with a superior opponent.
"We can be proud of everything except for the result," said Maccabi coach Guy Luzon at the post-game press conference. "For much of the match you couldn't tell which team plays in the Israeli league and which in the Italian league."
Omer Golan was once again Petah Tikva's star on the field, scoring the goal and constantly threatening the Italian defense. The 23-year-old striker will surely continue to attract attention from European teams and even opposing coach Luigi Del Neri commented afterward that "No. 15 could play at the high level of the Italian league."
Despite resting many of its regular starters, Palermo showed from the start why Guy Luzon projected it to win the group. The Sicilians drew first blood in the 11th minute when Franco Brienza finished off a slick team move with a left-footed shot beyond 'keeper Ohad Cohen. The goal was a demonstration of what the Palermo side is all about: accurate passing by unselfish players and finally a cool finish in front of goal.
Petah Tikva pushed forward and tried to equalize immediately. Forward Emile M'bamba passed a ball from the center of the box outside to Golan, who ballooned his shot over the crossbar.
Palermo controlled possession for most of the first half and had numerous chances to double its lead. Three minutes from the break, defender Michele Ferri had a golden chance to score but his poor finish from five meters out made sure Maccabi was still in the game.
Palermo would live to regret the missed chances as on the stroke of halftime a lob pass by Kobi Ganon was coolly hit over 'keeper Mariano Andujar by Golan to even the score.
The equalizer gave Maccabi confidence as the team began the second half looking to shock the Italians and score a winner. The hosts tried to conjure up the magic that saw them stun Serbian champs Partizan Belgrade 5-2 three weeks ago and become the first Israeli club to qualify for the UEFA Cup group stage.
Five minutes after the break Golan raced into the box and chipped the ball towards goal only for the ball to be intercepted on the way by midfielder Kfir Edri who inadvertently saved Palermo.
Nine minutes later Petah Tikva had another chance when M'bamba chested down the ball for Golan, who drilled a shot that was well saved by the visiting 'keeper.
Palermo soaked up Maccabi's pressure and finally hit Petah Tikva on the break with the winner. Thirteen minutes from time defender Cristian Terlizzi hit a left foot screamer into the top right corner that left Petah Tikva stunned and disheartened.
Maccabi still tried to snatch a late equalizer in front of the 4,000 fans in the stadium, but Jefisley Caldeira and Ismael Amar's efforts went wide and left Petah Tikva licking its wounds at full time and imagining what could have been.
Petah Tikva, which is the only Israeli club remaining in European competition, will travel to Denmark to play Brondby in two weeks and following that game hosts Lokomotiv Moscow in Ramat Gan. Petah Tikva finally ends its group matches in Barcelona against Espanyol. The winners, runner-ups and the third placed clubs will all advance to the knockout stage.
Frankie Sachs contributed to this report.
Edri (Elad Gian 77), Omer Golan, Emile M'bamba.
Palermo: Mariano Andujar, Cristian Terlizzi, Leandro Rinaudo, Fabio Grosso, Michele Ferri, Mariano Gonzalez, Paul Codera (Eugenio Corini 72), Massimo Mutarelli, Massimo Bonanni (Mario Alberto Santana 61), Andrea Caracciolo, Franco Brienza (Simone Pepe 45).
Maccabi Petah Tikva: Ohad Cohen, Ismael Amar, Murad Magomadov, Lokembo Lokaso, Kobi Ganon, Asi Mashiach (Rubil Sarsur 81), Jefisley Caldeira, Stanislav Dubrovin, Kfir