Greens get by Red Star, into group stage

Maccabi Haifa nets pair of improbable goals at end of each half in away draw • 5-4 aggregate triumph

AFTER FALLING to Tottenham Hotspur in last year's Europa League qualifying, Sun Menachem (right) and Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa got their Champions League qualifying campaign off to better start on Wednesday night, playing to a 1-1 home draw with Kairat Almaty of Kazahkstan (photo credit: REUTERS)
AFTER FALLING to Tottenham Hotspur in last year's Europa League qualifying, Sun Menachem (right) and Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa got their Champions League qualifying campaign off to better start on Wednesday night, playing to a 1-1 home draw with Kairat Almaty of Kazahkstan
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Maccabi Haifa advanced to the UEFA Champions League group stages for the third time in the club’s history as the Greens came back at Red Star Belgrade from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2 late Tuesday night and punch their ticket to the most prestigious annual club competition 5-4 on aggregate.

Barak Bachar’s squad fell behind at the Marakana Stadium on first-half goals by Aleksandar Peseic and Mirko Ivanic by the 43rd minute as the situation looked bleak for the Greens. However, Haifa received a lifeline on the stroke of half-time when defender Daniel Sundgren’s long shot found its way behind Belgrade’s keeper Milan Borjan to cut the advantage to 2-1.

Both sides had trouble creating chances over the course of the second half until an Omer Atzily free kick caromed off of Red Star substitute Milan Pavkov and behind Borjan in the 90th minute as Haifa moved into the Champions League for the first time in over a decade.

Bachar’s team began its Champions League qualifying journey with a stunning second-round ousting of Greek powerhouse Olympiacos 5-1 on aggregate, including a 4-0 second-leg win in Athens.

That tie was followed up by a 4-2 aggregate win over Apollon Limassol before Haifa downed Red Star last week 3-2 in Haifa in the first leg of the playoff round.

 MACCABI HAIFA will need all hands on deck for its Champions League Play-Off showdown against Red Star Belgrade, with the first leg kicking off tonight in Israel. (credit: MACCABI HAIFA) MACCABI HAIFA will need all hands on deck for its Champions League Play-Off showdown against Red Star Belgrade, with the first leg kicking off tonight in Israel. (credit: MACCABI HAIFA)

“This is the first time I have no words,” Bachar began after the game. “Usually I can say how I feel, but right now the emotions are overcoming me. The fans were great, the players were winners and we played in a tough place. But to be able to come back playing as professionals is really something. This is for the supporters and the entire State of Israel.”

“This is history,” said Haifa’s Dolev Haziza. “We played a number of tough teams to get here and I said before the game that Omer Atzily would come in and help score the winning goal. I’ve been working hard since the start of the season and we all wanted to get to the group stages. But I was super motivated and didn’t sleep at all the night before the game.”

“Usually I can say how I feel, but right now the emotions are overcoming me. The fans were great, the players were winners and we played in a tough place. But to be able to come back playing as professionals is really something. This is for the supporters and the entire State of Israel.”

Maccabi Haifas coach Barak Bachar

Sundgren also reflected on advancing to the group stages.

“It’s a dream come true. I joined Maccabi Haifa because they won the league and would compete for a chance to be in the Champions League. Today we show that we belonged there. We played well in the second half and we deserved this.”

For the Greens, this will be the third time in the Champions League group stages and the sixth time overall that an Israeli club will feature since the country joined UEFA.

“It’s a dream come true. I joined Maccabi Haifa because they won the league and would compete for a chance to be in the Champions League. Today we show that we belonged there. We played well in the second half and we deserved this.”

Swedish defender Daniel Sundgren

Haifa was the first team to play in the group stages back in 2002/03, when it played against the likes of Manchester United, Olympiacos and Sturm Graz.

The second time occurred in 2009/10 as Elisha Levy’s squad faced Bayern Munich, Juventus and Bordeaux. The last time an Israeli team played in the Champions League was in 2015/16, when Maccabi Tel Aviv advanced to the competition.

Maccabi Haifa came out very tentative to start the game as the Red Star faithful set off flares and various varieties of pyrotechnics. With the pitch blanketed in smoke, the hosts got a solid early chance, Guelor Kanga hit the right post as the Greens were saved early on by the woodwork.

However, Haifa’s luck would run out quickly when midfielder Aleksandar Katai raced down the left side past Sundgren and put the ball into the box, where Sean Goldberg failed to clear it, giving Pesic the opportunity to stab the sphere home for a 1-0 Red Star advantage in the 27th minute.

The precarious situation went from bad to worse for Haifa when it coughed up the ball on the sidelines. The ball went straight to Katai, who back-healed it to Pesic and then to Ivanic, who made no mistake to put Red Star up 2-0 in the 44th minute.

Just before the sides headed into the break, the visiting Greens were awarded a penalty due to a Slavoljub Srnić handball in the box, but Haziza’s weak spot kick was easily saved by Borjan.

Just seconds later, Sundgren’s long-distance attempt skipped by a confused Borjan and into the back of the goal to cut the lead to 2-1 and draw the aggregate score even 4-4 entering the break.

Play calmed down as the second half got under way as chances were few and far between. Pierre Cornud’s 65th-minute chance for Haifa was tipped off of the post and out to safety by Borjan.

Just as the game looked to be heading into extra-time, Atzily’s free kick was inadvertently redirected into Red Star’s goal and past a helpless Borjan by striker Milan Pavkov as Maccabi took whatever it could get to advance to the group stages of the Champions League.

Benfica cruises past Dynamo

In other action, Benfica’s David Neres scored a superb goal as the Portuguese side reached the group stage with a 3-0 victory over Dynamo Kiev in Lisbon on Tuesday for a 5-0 aggregate win.

Nicolas Otamendi and Rafa Silva also scored in the first half and Benfica never looked troubled in making Thursday’s draw as it qualified for the 12th time in 13 seasons.

Neres set up the first goal as his deep cross picked out Otamendi, who drifted away from his marker and headed home.

Silva profited from a defensive mistake as he intercepted Oleksandr Syrota’s wayward pass and produced a neat finish.

Goncalo Ramos then picked out Neres, who brilliantly bent the ball into the net to wrap up the scoring for the home side.

The defeat is a bitter disappointment for Dynamo, which could not book its passage on the day league soccer returned to war-torn Ukraine.

Czech outfit Plzen also booked a place in the lucrative group stage as it came from behind to beat visitors Qarabag 2-1 and win the tie by the same score on aggregate.

Second-half goals from Jan Kopic and Jan Kliment handed Plzen the win after Filip Ozobic had put the visitors in front after 38 minutes.

Reuters contributed to this report.