THE GREATEST ISRAELI SPORTING MOMENTS OF THE DECADE No.3- Hapoel Tel Aviv's 2001 Stamford Bridge stunner

THE GREATEST ISRAELI SPO

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December 17, 2009 04:46
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There are many memorable moments from Hapoel Tel Aviv's amazing run to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup in the 2001/02 season. However, as far as I'm concerned, there is one which stands above all others. Until November 1, 2001, there was nothing extraordinary about Hapoel's European campaign. Tel Aviv's 5-0 aggregate victory over Armenia's Ararat Yerevan in the competition's qualifying round followed by the 2-1 win over Turkey's Gaziantepspor gave no indication of what was set to unfold in the subsequent months. Even the 2-0 victory over Chelsea at Bloomfield Stadium in the first leg of the second round in late October seemed to be no more than a mere aberration. After all, Chelsea played in Israel with many of its reserves as several of the English club's stars refused to come to Israel, fearing for their safety because of the ongoing Second Intifada. There was little doubt that Chelsea would manage to overturn the deficit in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. It may still have been the pre-Roman Abramovich era, but the Blues were still far superior to Hapoel. Chelsea laid siege on the Tel Aviv goal right from the start, forcing goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech to make countless saves. In one of the best performances ever by an Israeli 'keeper, Elimelech kept Chelsea's heralded attack at bay with tremendous stops, denying the hosts the allimportant early goal. In the 36th minute, Stamford Bridge was stunned into silence. In a rare surge forward, Hapoel's Hungarian midfielder Istvan Pisont found Milan Osterc in the box and the Slovenian striker gave Tel Aviv a shock lead, sending 4,000 Hapoel fans into delirium. Despite now needing four goals to advance, Chelsea continued to pummel Elimelech's goal. Hapoel defended desperately and was more than content on clearing the danger any way possible. Tel Aviv was still leading 1-0 at halftime, and with his final roll of the dice Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri made three substitutions and sent all his players forward in search of the elusive equalizer. Chelsea came tantalizingly close to scoring time and again, hitting the crossbar, the post and practically every other part of the woodwork. However, fortune favored the brave Hapoel resistance and the visitors held on valiantly. The Blues finally made their breakthrough in the 64th minute through Gianfranco Zola. However, Chelsea could not score again and Hapoel fans went into complete ecstasy as the final whistle sounded, struggling to believe what they had just witnessed. Dror Kashtan's team would build on the momentum from its sensational victory in London in the following months, getting the better of Lokomotiv Moscow and Italy's Parma, before finally succumbing to AC Milan in the last eight, albeit not before beating the Italian giant 1-0 in the first leg. Eight years later, and still the 2001/02 Hapoel side remains the only Israeli team to reach the quarterfinals of a continental competition. The history books may say that Tel Aviv's magical campaign began in Armenia late in the summer of 2001. However, it was only at Stamford Bridge that it became clear that fate itself was on Hapoel's side, setting into motion a remarkable chain of results which may well still remain unique even after the coming decade. This is the third of a five-part series in which we will count down the most memorable moments in Israeli sports over the past decade. The feature will appear in Thursday's section in each of the next two weeks.

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