In one of the biggest upsets in Israeli sports history, Maccabi Haifa blanked Juventus 2-0 late Tuesday night at Sammy Ofer Stadium thanks to a first-half brace by Omer Atzili on Matchday 4 of the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The victory was not only the Greens’ first in this year’s competition, but it was also their first in Champions League play since 2002 when they downed Manchester United 3-0 in a home game that was played in Cyprus due to the Second Intifada.
How Haifa won its first CL match since 2002
Haifa began the game well on its home field, pressing the Italian squad from the outset.
The efforts paid off with the quickest goal by an Israeli club in the Champions League when Barak Bachar’s team found the back of the Juventus net in the seventh minute.
Wide back Pierre Cornud came streaking down the left side of the pitch and sent a cross that went off Omer Atzili’s back and just behind Wojciech Szczęsny as he couldn’t stop the ball from crossing the line sending the Carmel Greens’ faithful into pandemonium.
With Bachar’s team looking for an insurance marker, Atzili once again was at the forefront in the 42nd minute when he sent a left-footed screamer into the top right corner of the Juventus goal for a 2-0 lead as the hosts controlled the pace of play for the entire second half to take the win.
“This was a big win,” Bachar commented after the victory. “We lost in the Israeli league to newly promoted Bnei Reineh, but won here against Juventus. We are still disappointed by the league losses and it’s sitting in our minds. But we came into this game to play our game on our field. We wanted to win, but we also knew we were playing a very high-quality team. But when you do things right for 90 minutes, that is what wins the game and we also have quality.
"“We lost in the Israeli league to newly promoted Bnei Reineh, but won here against Juventus"Maccabi Haifa Head Coach Barak Bachar
“I knew we could make the switch from the league to a game like this. There was motivation right from the start of our preparations, but we need to be able to make those switches easier. Right now, we have 24 hours to change our mindset and begin getting ready for Hadera.”
Omer Atzili: A predator in the box
Atzili also looked back at the win.
“At the start we didn’t believe that we could do anything big [in the group stage], maybe take a couple of points, but now that we snatched three points we are all believing that anything is possible. There is nothing like playing at Sammy Ofer Stadium with our fans. Sometimes when you go to bed and close your eyes you think of moments like this. If I can score in the Israeli league, I can score here as well. Now we must think about the next match.”
The victory gave Haifa its first points of the Champions League and the Green now find themselves in a battle for third place in Group H, with two matches remaining at home against Benfica and away at Paris Saint-Germain. Should Haifa finish in third place at the end of the six-game group stage, it will head to the knockout stages of the Europa League, while the top two teams go to the Champions League knockouts and the fourth-place club ends its participation in European competition for the 2022/23 campaign.
“The battle for third place is wide open,” Bachar noted. “It won’t be easy to record points in the next couple of games, but anything is possible and this team can do anything. According to the table, third place is realistic. Of course, we know that our two final games will be very difficult but we have time until we play them as we have two tough Israeli league games first.”
The last time an Israeli team won a Champions League game was back in 2010, when Hapoel Tel Aviv defeated Benfica from Portugal 3-0.
Maccabi Haifa looking for a third place finish
While Maccabi Haifa now has one win, Bachar is looking to solidify a hold on the group’s third place, and knows that Atzili will be a critical piece for the team’s success going forward.
“Atzili deserves this game as he has worked very hard and last game he had chances but just missed them,” Bachar commented. “In this game, everything came together for him and I am happy. Atzili isn’t just any other player and there is a big difference when you are playing at home. The fans really pushed us hard. He deserved it.”
The upset win also comes with a financial prize of close to three million Euros, an added bonus for the club’s finances and budget. Maccabi Haifa is also the team in the group stage with the lowest budget of a shade under $21 million, compared to Juventus’s which is over $500 million for the 22/23 campaign, making the improbable win even more stunning.
The victory is arguably the Greens’ biggest in European play due to the fact that the win over Manchester United back in 2002 was primarily versus backups as the English club had nothing to play for in that game having already advanced to the knockout round of the competition from first place.
For Juventus, the defeat is not only shocking but also humbling as the Italian powerhouse has had all kinds of issues this season both domestically and in continental play, and perhaps this is the last straw for embattled coach Massimiliano Allegri.
“The performance was not up to par,” the Juventus bench boss said. "Especially from a character point of view. We just have to keep quiet, work and get out of this situation. The problem is that we should be playing as a team. We play too much individually instead. It was one of our worst first halves ever. Now we have to work because it is not right to play like this.”
Juventus defender Danilo echoed his coach’s sentiments.
”It is difficult to say something. We are also disappointed for the fans, now we have to analyze together what is not working. I find it hard to think that a Juventus player can be so nervous. In recent times, when there are difficulties we hide, we stop playing. I disagree with this attitude. It is not enough to say that we are Juventus, we have to prove on the pitch who we are. Since I arrived, I have always said that the focus must always be on the next match and this is not changing now.”
“We believed in ourselves, and this was a crazy game,” said Haifa captain Neta Lavi. “The team effort was incredible and we all stayed close together, which made us look better on the pitch. We know that when we play these types of games if we are not good and make mistakes, we will be punished. But I am happy with our performance.”