(photo credit: AP)
After Hapoel Tel Aviv welcomed European soccer back to Israeli soil, Maccabi Haifa made sure that its domestic league rival would not be lonely in the group stage of the UEFA Cup.
Hapoel Tel Aviv's 3-1 victory over Chornomorets Odessa of Ukraine at a full Bloomfield Stadium Thursday night was the first European soccer match to be held in Israel since UEFA lifted its most recent ban.
Maccabi Haifa also recorded a 3-1 victory, over Litex Lovech in Sofia, Bulgaria, and advanced on a 4-2 aggregate score. Haifa and Litex drew 1-1 in the first leg, which Maccabi "hosted" in the Netherlands.
Xavier Dirceu (19), Alain Masudi (32) and Roberto Colautti (67) scored for the reigning Israeli Premier League champions Thursday night.
Hapoel outplayed the Ukrainian team in both legs of their tie, and the aggregate result of 4-1 reflected the differences between the clubs.
The biggest winner Thursday night was Hapoel coach Yitzhak Schum. The coach had been ridiculed from the start of the season, but has showed what a valuable asset he is to any team he coaches. This is the second time Schum has taken an Israeli side to the group stage of a European competition after guiding Maccabi Haifa to the group stage of the Champions League in the 2002/03 season.
"This is one of my greatest moments," Schum said after the match. "I don't care who we get in the group stage. I've faced big and small teams in the past."
The draw for the group stage will take place on October 3 when 40 teams will be split into eight groups. The top three teams from each group will then advance to the next stage.
Hapoel was content on defending and hitting Odessa on the break at the start of the match, while the visitors pushed players forward in search of a goal that would even the aggregate score.
Despite Odessa having most of the possession at the start of the half, the hosts had the first good chance nine minutes into the game. Javier Paez lobbed the ball to Elyaniv Barda, who shot straight at Odessa 'keeper Vitaliy Rudenko.
Hapoel continued to threaten on the break and took the lead 24 minutes into the match. Barda found Salim Toema all alone on the edge of the penalty box and the Israeli international smashed the ball into the top of the net.
Tel Aviv wasn't satisfied with a two-goal aggregate lead and six minutes later Barda almost scored the team's second of the night. Baruch Dego crossed to Barda, who hit a powerful shot that was well saved by Rudenko.
Odessa kept up the pressure at the start of the second half and three minutes after the interval could have equalized. Oleh Venhlinskiy only had Hapoel goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech to beat, but the veteran 'keeper was well placed to save the shot.
Five minutes later, Tel Aviv striker Ivan Jolic was left all alone in the visitors' box but carelessly headed Toema's cross wide of the goal.
Hapoel almost paid for its sloppiness, but Odessa missed several chances in the five minutes following Jolic's miss. Serhiy Symonenko came closest to scoring, hitting the post from 25 meters out.
In the 72nd minute, Odessa's task got even tougher. Former Maccabi Haifa defender Andrei Ostrovskiy exchanged words with the linesman and was shown the red card.
Two minutes later, Hapoel effectively booked its place in the next stage. Paez hit the post with his header, but Toema was on hand to blast in the rebound and double Tel Aviv's lead.
Odessa scored a well-deserved consolation goal in the 82nd minute when Gennadi Nizhegorodov headed the ball past Elimelech direct from a free kick.
However, Hapoel had the last laugh. Two minutes from the end of the match, Luciano De Bruno rolled the ball past Rudenko and Hapoel's fans began their celebrations.