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Two goals in the space of two second half minutes helped Maccabi Haifa secure a 3-1 victory against Auxerre in its first UEFA Cup group stage match at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night.
Israel's other UEFA Cup representative, Hapoel Tel Aviv, did not fare nearly as well, losing 2-0 to Panathinaikos in Greece.
The UEFA Cup group stage resumes in two weeks' time, with Haifa traveling to Glasgow Rangers and Hapoel hosting Rapid Bucharest.
The top three teams in each group will qualify for the next stage with each team playing four matches, once against every side in the group.
Haifa began its match well and stormed the Auxerre defense in search of an early goal. In the eighth minute, Yaniv Katan's free kick whizzed past the French goalpost, missing it by centimeters.
Five minutes later, Maccabi took the lead. Roberto Colautti and Alain Masudi linked up well in the Auxerre box with Masudi finishing off the move with a delicate chip over 'keeper Fabian Cool.
After falling behind, Auxerre pushed forward and it wasn't long before it equalized.
Haifa left defender Adoram Keisi was unable to continue and Haim Megrashvili was brought in to replace Keisi. The substitute couldn't contain the opposition's pace and Bacary Sagna's cross from the left side was perfectly met by Romanian striker Daniel Nicolae, who headed the ball past 'keeper Nir Davidovitch.
Auxerre continued to control the possession and was unfortunate not to score again in the first half. In the 39th minute, a quality team move ended with a powerful Benoit Pedretti shot that was well saved by Davidovitch. A minute later, it was once more Davidovitch's heroics that saved Maccabi from conceding a second goal. Nicolae twice shot from close range, but the 'keeper was well placed and kept the ball out.
The start of the second half continued as the first had ended with Auxerre controlling possession, but Haifa scored two goals against the run of play in the space of two minutes and decided the match.
In the 55th minute, Gustavo Boccoli met Xavier Andersson's deflected shot perfectly and volleyed it into goal from just outside the area.
The goal stunned the French and two minutes later, Maccabi scored its third. Boccoli threaded a beautiful pass to Colautti, who rounded the French 'keeper to give Haifa a two-goal lead.
In the 65th minute, a red card for Auxerre defender Stefhane Grichting secured Maccabi's victory. A frustrated Grichting hit out at Boccoli and the referee had no choice but to show him a red card.
Panathinaikos 2 Hapoel Tel Aviv 0
Hapoel Tel Aviv suffered the first setback of its UEFA Cup campaign, losing to Greek power Panathinaikos in a lackluster and uninspired performance at Olympic Stadium in Athens on Thursday.
The game was played without the "Pana" loyalists in the stands, due to a UEFA ruling after last year's violent events at the stadium.
Hapoel coach Yitzhak Schum returned to Athens to take on his former team, which he guided to an historic Greek league championship and cup double in 2004, but failed to live up to expectations.
"I'm on the losing side," a disappointed Schum told reporters. "I have a winning record here. This is the first time I have seen the opponent win without creating any real chances. We can play much better than we did today. Its a pity there's no rematch in Tel Aviv."
"It's very disappointing," Hapoel goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech said. "I think we played this game as equals. But this is what happens when you don't take your chances and don't play defense. You need to avoid such things when you play in European competition."
Schum used a conservative game plan, employing a defensive lineup that featured a five-man midfield and Elyaniv Barda as the lone striker. The tactic did not yield fruit.
Panathinaikos applied relentless attacks on Hapoel's goal right from the start, and Argentinian winger Sebastian Romero almost scored on a fierce strike in the first minute. Hapoel came under frequent pressure, but managed to contain the Greeks.
Salim Toema was instrumental in crafting some well-organized counterattacks for Hapoel. However, Panathinaikos goalkeeper Pier-Owono Ebede made a spectacular save to deny Walid Badier in the final minute of the first half.
Panathinaikos came out strong after halftime, drawing first blood just two minutes into the second half, thanks to a careless own-goal by Tal Chen. The Greek team pushed the ball into the box from the right flank and Chen pushed the apparently weak cross into his own goal, after a misunderstanding with Elimelech.
Schum sent in striker Luciano de Bruno, but the move backfired as Panathinaikos kept the pressure on Hapoel's rear guard.
Dimitris Papadopoulos used his experience with a crucial intervention in midfield, dispossessing Hapoel right back Tomer Haliva of the ball. The veteran captain wasted no time and found an unmarked Romero in the box. Romero provided the accurate finish to double the lead in the 64th minute.
Barda came close to scoring for Hapoel toward the end, but his header from close range was saved by Ebede.
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