Maccabi Haifa put up a good fight against Paris Saint-Germain in UEFA Champions League group stage play late Wednesday night. However, the Israeli champion eventually succumbed to its French counterpart 3-1 at Sammy Ofer Stadium.
Tjaron Chery stunned the visitors by snatching a 1-0 lead midway through the first half, but three unanswered goals by Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar gave Christophe Galtier’s squad the three points to sit atop Group H.
It was the first time ever that the three PSG superstars combined to find the back of the net in the same Champions League contest.
The Greens and their rabid fans put on quite the show ahead of the game as over 30,000 fans packed into the stadium in hopes of not only seeing the likes of Messi & Co. but also to find out if their beloved Haifa squad could upset the Ligue 1 stalwart.
A potential surprise was in the air from the get-go as Barak Bachar’s team was the better side over the course of the opening half-hour and took the lead via Chery, who scored off a Dolev Haziza cross.
However, just ahead of the halftime break, Messi scored off an Mbappe ball to draw even at 1-1.
Messi and Mbappe seal the win for PSG
“I believe that even when they were winning 2-1 in the second half we were comfortable and that we were controlling the tempo.”Barak Bachar, Maccabi Haifa head coach
The duo then connected to find the back of the goal in the 69th minute when they reversed roles and Mbappe scored, while Neymar broke free late in the game to add an insurance marker to wrap up the win.
“I believe that even when they were winning 2-1 in the second half we were comfortable and that we were controlling the tempo,” Bachar commented after the game. “We knew that we would be punished for any mistake that we made. With a bit more luck we could have scored another goal. We gave our maximum and I am proud of the players. We will learn from this and move forward.”
PSG head coach Galtier also looked back at what transpired in Haifa.
“I wasn’t surprised with Haifa’s performance. We really studied the team and we knew as to how much quality they had. I also expected such a good atmosphere and the amazing fans here. Maccabi Haifa is an excellent club and we had a very tough time in the first half against them.”
Chery took away some positives for Haifa despite the defeat.
“I’m happy to have scored,” the 34-year-old said. “Against such a quality team like this it’s very difficult. I wasn’t surprised as to how we played and as we know it’s very hard to do too much against such a club like PSG. It’s great to play against a team like this, but next time we want to play even better.”
Haifa captain Neta Lavi also reflected on the game.
“We are very proud as to how we played, but we are upset with just compliments. I don’t take it for granted that we had a stadium bursting at the seams and the fans really helped us a lot. Of course, this was a tough game and not the result that we had wanted.”
Mbappe commented on the experience from PSG’s side.
“The conditions were a little difficult. It was very hot, but it’s the Champions League. We came here to win and reinforce our hold on top spot, and we did that. We started quite well, we played with intensity, but then we dropped our tempo a bit and conceded a goal. We reacted well, imposed our style of play, and made the difference, scoring the second and capping it off with the third.”
For the first time in the club’s history, the Greens were able to finally host a Champions League game in Haifa and the opponent for the occasion couldn’t have been any better. The star-studded Paris Saint-Germain lineup featured arguably the greatest ever to play the game in Messi along with one of the most flamboyant in Neymar, Mbappe and ace defender Sergio Ramos.
PSG took the matchup with the utmost seriousness as it arrived only 24 hours prior to the start of the game and held its final training session and pre-match press conference in France.
While Haifa had featured in the exclusive club competition twice before, it had never had the opportunity to host a game in its own city.
Back in 2002, the Greens played their home matches in Cyprus due to the Second Intifada, which included a monumental win over English side Manchester United. The second time Haifa played in the Champions League, in 2009/10, the club’s home games were played in the cavernous 40K+ seat Ramat Gan Stadium as the old facility Kiryat Eliezer was too small and did not meet UEFA standards.
However, since Sammy Ofer opened in 2014 it set the standard for stadiums across the Holy Land and yearned to host a Champions League game which finally came to fruition this week. In Haifa’s first European contest this season, they came up short in Lisbon falling to Portuguese giants Benfica 2-0 while PSG slipped by Juventus 2-1.
To get to this point, Haifa needed to win three qualifying rounds, which it did against Greek powerhouse Olympiacos, Cypriot side Apollon Limassol and finally Red Star Belgrade in the Play Off.
With stars of the past, such as Yaniv Katan and Arik Benado, in attendance, Haifa head coach Bachar’s starting lineup featured Josh Cohen in goal, Daniel Sundgren, Pierre Cornud, Sean Goldberg and newcomer Dylan Batubinsika in front of the shot-stopper.
Captain Lavi anchored the midfield along with Muhammed Abu Fani and Chery, while Omer Atzily, Haziza and Frantzdy Pierrot played up front and piloted the Greens’ attack.
PSG came out looking to strike first as Mbappe raced down the left side of the pitch past Cornud, but his chance went flying over the bar.
At the other end, Haifa pressured PSG ’keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, however the Italian was able to clear the danger.
Neymar’s smart attempt in the box deflected off Sundgren for a corner kick, but Cohen parried the ball away to safety. Abu Fani unleashed a scorcher for the Greens minutes late, but an alert Donnarumma made the timely save as the end-to-end action continued at a frantic pace.
Pierrot tried to get Haifa on the board first, but once again Donnarumma came up big.
He couldn’t stop Chery, though, as the Haifa forward stabbed the ball home thanks to a brilliant cross by Haziza to give the hosts a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute.
However, PSG furiously looked for the equalizer, which it found via Messi from in close after he took an Mbappe pass to score in the box and make it 1-1 in the 37th minute.
The goal was Messi’s first in Champions League play this season as he has now scored against 39 different teams, passing Cristiano Ronaldo in that department.
Atzily tried to help Haifa retake the lead just ahead of the break as he came in on the right side but his sharp shot skipped wide of the goal and Chery’s vicious screamer was saved by a diving Donnarumma as the two sides headed to the dressing rooms all knotted up at 1-1.
Haifa controlled the pace of play to begin the second half as Atzily’s attempt was stopped by the PSG ’keeper early on, while Cornud’s shot glanced off of his teammate Pierrot and went out in the 52nd minute to keep things even.
Messi and Neymar got busy, but their chances were nullified by the Haifa defenders, including one that was just cleared by Cornud at the last second to keep the game at 1-1.
PSG continued to press the Greens and the efforts paid off when Mbappe slotted home the go-ahead goal off a Messi pass to take a 2-1 lead in the 69th minute. For the Frenchman, the tally was his sixth straight Champions League game with a goal, and his third of the current campaign.
Haifa valiantly tried to even the game up, but after Chery’s free kick missed the target, Neymar broke through the Haifa backline to make sure there would be no comeback as he scored to give PSG the two-goal victory.