maccabi haifa 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
After a seven year wait, the dream has finally come true.
Maccabi Haifa advanced to the Champions League group stage on Tuesday night, defeating Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 at National Stadium in Ramat Gan to complete a 5-1 aggregate victory in the qualifying playoff.
Haifa entered Tuesday's second leg with a 2-1 cushion from its victory in Austria last week and at no stage was its lead under any real threat.
The hosts outplayed Salzburg in the return leg, just as they did in the first, and well and truly deserved to progress to the group stage of European soccer's premier competition.
"We did this in the style we wanted to. We played great soccer. We were prepared and our plan worked out well. Most importantly we kept the tradition of this club alive," said coach Elisha Levy.
Haifa was the first Israeli team to reach the group stage in the 2002/03 season and in three weeks time it will become the first local club to play in this stage for a second time, with Maccabi Tel Aviv the only other Israeli club to compete with the continent's big boys in the 2004/05 campaign.
The draw for the group stage will take place on Thursday and Haifa can expect to see some of Europe's most prestigious names in its group as it's set to be placed in the fourth seeding group.
Haifa looked a little anxious at the start of the match, but the very ordinary Salzburg couldn't take advantage and in the 31st minute Vladimir Dvalishvili found the back of the net to move Elisha Levy's team yet a little closer to progressing.
In the 57th minute Maccabi all but ensured itself an exciting winter of soccer when Eyal Golasa scored, courtesy of a deflection, and in stoppage time Mohammed Ghadir completed one of the greatest days in the history of the club with an easy tap-in.
The 30,000 plus Haifa fans created a tremendous atmosphere ahead of the kickoff and the Champions League anthem sent a shiver through the spine of all present.
It took the Haifa players a couple of minutes to shake the early nerves, with Salzburg showing its intent right from start when Simon Cziommer tested goalkeeper Nir Davidovich from long range.
Just a minute later the hosts were very nearly gifted the opener.
Salzburg 'keeper Eddie Gustafsson sent his poor clearance straight at Yaniv Katan and the Haifa captain should have really done better with his shot from the edge of the area.
In the eighth minute, Ghadir came close with a header, but the visitors had the better of the possession in the subsequent minutes and looked to put Haifa under pressure. However, the Austrians never really threatened Davidovich's goal and in the 31st minute of the match Haifa took a massive step toward the group stage.
Katan sent through Dvalishvili and after seeing his first attempt blocked by the defense, the Georgian striker scored from the rebound and Ramat Gan erupted.
To Haifa's delight, Salzburg couldn't muster an immediate reply and after the remainder of the half passed by without much incident, the hosts took a 1-0 lead into the break.
Salzburg made a couple of changes 10 minutes into the second half, but three minutes later it was Haifa which scored again.
Golasa picked up the ball on the left flank and thanks to a fortuitous deflection the ball flew past Gustafsson and Haifa doubled its advantage.
The mediocre Salzburg never really had any chance of mounting a comeback and Haifa sailed for the rest of the encounter, with Ghadir putting the icing on the cake in stoppage time and ensuring nothing will prevent the club from realizing its Champions League dream.
"We achieved our aims," a delighted Katan said after the game.