There’s nothing better than a classic “European Football Night”.
Nothing, zip, zero. And that’s what we got last Wednesday evening at Sammy Ofer Stadium as host Maccabi Haifa was able to mount a comeback and defeat Red Star Belgrade 3-2 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Play-Off round tie.
The best of the best, the stars, the pomp and circumstance, the Champions League anthem, the flag, the shivers down the spine, the goosebumps, the desire, the drive and the all-around effort by all those on the pitch (and by those in the stands) make such a European night of soccer such an unforgettable one.
Memories are created, heroes are made and coaches are anointed on these nights when we all witness the highest level of club sporting competition.
The top players ratchet up their game not just a notch or two, but as high as they can physically and mentally push the envelope. Sweat and tears are the result of the highs and lows that invariably permeate throughout the stadium as the pendulum of emotions swing from one side to the other, rarely stopping for a moment in the middle as end-to-end action is the name of the game.
However, as incredible the game was in Israel, the second leg in Belgrade will be something extraordinary that the players and traveling fans alike will have never experienced before. The Marakana in Serbia is not only one of the most revered stadiums in Europe, but it’s also the absolutely most intimidating facility in the entire world.
The Red Star faithful have already bought up all the tickets, and did so just minutes after they went on sale, as over 53,000 supporters will pack into the home arena to see their team fight for the right to play in the Champions League group stages.
In Haifa, Dolev Haziza with three assists was masterful as he proved to be the best player on the pitch. His overall effort should be a textbook lesson for anyone trying to master their craft.
Fancy Frantzdy Pierrot, with a brace, lifted his game and once again found the back of the goal when called upon, whether it was making the correct turn and slotting the ball home or being able to just nod the sphere by a helpless Red Star ’keeper.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” Haziza said of the match in Haifa. “It’s the moment that every player dreams of. We believed from the outset and we scored a quick goal. We pressed well immediately after, but then we gave up a goal out of nowhere. When you make a mistake against this type of club, you’ll be punished. We want to push forward and advance.”
Tjaron Chery was yet another Maccabi player who shifted gears into unknown levels, and he made sure to get that winner and send the Greens into the Marakana with a one-goal advantage, which is certainly a better prospect than going into the second leg all knotted up. “This was a great game with a fantastic crowd, but the next game will be different,” Chery said. “However, if we play the way we did, then we have a good chance to advance to the group stages. We wanted to win the game at this level, we waited for this and it happened. But we still have another goal next week. I hope that what we did was enough.”
Make no mistake – Barak Bachar’s Haifa players know exactly where they are heading and into what type of cauldron that is awaiting them. The Greens’ bench boss will have his charges ready to go after going for it at home and they all know that this game is a point of no return. It’s do-or-die to face the most prestigious clubs in Europe or perhaps in the world.
For Maccabi, this will be a version of hell on earth, which is precisely the narrative that Red Star gaffer Dejan Stankovic was already setting the stage for at the post-match press conference in Haifa, as he himself looked like he was ready himself to step right onto the pitch.
“We’re not that surprised about how Haifa played as we knew they were quick and talented, but I’m sure at the Marakana we will be able to contend with them and use our qualities to our advantage,” the Belgrade coach said.
Bachar, who has already experienced Champions League near-misses when he was in charge of Hapoel Beersheba, knows that this is an entirely different story but also one that he feels is a passable test.
“I don’t want to look at what was in the past. I’m at a different club now and while it’s a similar situation, we still have another step to go. We have a team that has shown the ability to handle a tough away game as we did at Olympiacos and we really believe that we can do this.”
There’s no doubt that Haziza and Pierrot were the stars of the show on Thursday, combining for what is turning into a lethal duo, but Bachar wanted to keep the pair levelheaded after the match, downplaying their dynamite performance.
“Pierrot is a terrific striker and he has certain qualities that bring an element to the game, but it’s still just the start of the season and there’s plenty of time to go. Dolev has made a jump this season both physically and mentally on the pitch and we have a team that is now very flexible because of that.”
Speaking of the French striker, Pierrot understands that there is still a long way to go to get to the promised land.
“We won the first game but it’s only half of the job, it’s not over and we have another tough match in the return leg which won’t be easy,” he said. “In fact, this one wasn’t simple either. We are all happy, but we know what is in front of us.”
The Maccabi Haifa supporters certainly put on an impressive show with their choreographed signage, cheering, singing and dancing. Still, Red Star’s dangerous winger Osman Bukari warned that the Greens have something totally out of this world waiting for them in Belgrade.
“The fans in Haifa are very good, but Belgrade will be something totally different. Have you seen the videos? Get ready for it and if you come to the Marakana you will see our fans and you will just die.”
Guelor Kanga, who scored Belgrade’s second tally in the first leg, was also confident following the game.
“We thought it would be hard, but this was a crazy game. Maccabi Haifa is a great team but despite the loss, we are still favorites to advance to the Champions League and I really believe that we will do just that. The fans here were terrific, but in Belgrade you’ll see the best fans in the world.”
Despite the challenge, Pierrot remains confident in Haifa’s chances.
“This isn’t over for us or them and we have to win and stay with our game plan,” he commented. “If we give it our all I think it’s possible for us to advance. It’s a team effort and I am part of the team. I am doing everything in my power for the team to advance, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the entire team.
“I’m happy that we were able to win this game, but next week we have a super tough game. We deserved to win, but in Belgrade it’s an entirely different story. As a child I never dreamed of getting to the group stages. We will give everything that we have for it to happen.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv
In Israel Premier League action, meanwhile, Maccabi Tel Aviv walloped Bnei Reineh 5-0 as the newly promoted squad got a rude awakening to life in Israel’s Premier League.
The yellow-and-blue came out flying with four first-half goals as Djorde Jovanovic scored a pair of goals and assisted on another to take an early insurmountable lead.
The Serbian headed home Oscar Glouch’s pinpoint perfect corner kick to kick off the scoring, Stipe Perica took a Maor Kandil pass from midfield and chipped it into the goal over a helpless Arik Yanko while Jovanovic completed a brace in almost the same fashion and Avi Rikan finished off the first half with a goal of his own.
Vladen Ivic introduced a number of substitutes for Maccabi over the course of the second half, including Dor Peretz who signed last week after a year abroad at Venezia in Italy’s Serie A. With fresh players, Perica scored his second goal of the game as Glouch’s terrific goal-line cross found his intended target to help Tel Aviv wrap up a 5-0 win.
Coach Ivic reflected on the game.
“We started the game strong and had a few days to prepare after the Nice game with a lot of new players who hadn’t played last game. It’s a good start and we have another game coming up. From the moment we started to work together we spoke about how we will play, how we will work… we believe in ourselves as we will give everything in the next game.”
Adham Hadiya, the Bnei Reineh coach, spoke about his top-division debut, even in a losing effort for his side.
“I’m very disappointed and we didn’t expect to get the season started off on the wrong foot, but we have to get back to work and make sure we are ready for the next game. We didn’t start the game well, the atmosphere was tough and you have to remember that we have 14 new players. I can take something from the second half, but the first was catastrophic.”
“We gave our maximum because we want to bring back the championship this season,” said man-of-the-match Jovanovic. “We scored some early goals and that made the game much easier. As for myself, it’s been much easier because I was able to be with the team from the start of the preseason and I know my teammates.”