Maccabi Haifa bows out with loss to Benfica

Chance for Greens to join Europa League knockout stage dashed in 6-1 swan song to campaign.

 DESPITE THE 6-1 defeat to Benfica in their final match of the group stage, Neta Lavi (front) and Maccabi Haifa had a respectable Champions League showing overall. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
DESPITE THE 6-1 defeat to Benfica in their final match of the group stage, Neta Lavi (front) and Maccabi Haifa had a respectable Champions League showing overall.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Maccabi Haifa tried its hardest to end its UEFA Champions League campaign on a high note that would have seen it advance to the Europa League knockout stages, but it wasn’t meant to be as the Greens fell 6-1 at home to Benfica late Wednesday night.

Barak Bachar’s squad entered the final group stage game with a chance to become the first Israeli team to finish in third place – behind Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica – and that looked to be the case with strong first-half play behind the tremendous fan support at Sammy Ofer Stadium that saw the match all knotted up at 1-1 after 45 minutes.

However, the Portuguese side had no interest to follow in the footsteps of Juventus, which fell in Israel last month, and turned the jets on to score five unanswered goals to seal the victory and also take first place in Group H on goal differential over PSG, which beat Juventus 2-1.

Gonçalo Ramos opened the scoring by nodding the ball by Haifa’s keeper Josh Cohen for a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute. But that advantage would be short-lived as the Greens were awarded a penalty thanks to Alexander Bah’s handball in the box. Veteran midfielder Tjaron Chery stepped up and made no mistake with his spot kick to draw the hosts even at 1-1 to the delight of the over 30,000 supporters that filled every nook and cranny at Sammy Ofer.

Unfortunately for Bachar’s squad, that would be the last highlight of the continental campaign. Forward Petar Musa headed home a Bah cross in the 59th minute to give Roger Schmidt’s team a 2-1 lead and open the floodgates. Alejandro Grimaldo curled a perfect free kick around the Haifa wall 10 minutes later to double the advantage while Rafa Silva tapped home a David Neres ball to go up 4-1 in the 73rd minute.

 MACCABI HAIFA teammates celebrate after Omer Atzili's first goal in the seventh minute sent the Greens on their way to a shocking 2-0 victory over Juventus on Tuesday night in their Champions League Group H clash at Sammy Ofer Stadium (credit: RONEN ZVULUN) MACCABI HAIFA teammates celebrate after Omer Atzili's first goal in the seventh minute sent the Greens on their way to a shocking 2-0 victory over Juventus on Tuesday night in their Champions League Group H clash at Sammy Ofer Stadium (credit: RONEN ZVULUN)

As the game continued the Haifa players tired, which in turn resulted in another pair of goals against Cohen as Henrique Araújo and Joao Mario finished off the Greens once and for all to end their Champions League campaign having scored seven goals while conceding 21 and giving the club’s brass plenty to think about should they again qualify to the competition.

Conceding so many goals

“It’s hard, to sum up the whole campaign right after it all ends,” Bachar said. “I am disappointed to have conceded so many goals in the last two matches, but I am proud of the way we played throughout most of the games.”

“I am disappointed to have conceded so many goals in the last two matches, but I am proud of the way we played throughout most of the games.”

Barak Bachar

Looking back at Maccabi Haifa’s campaign, the Greens can be very proud of their showing despite only winning one of their six group-stage games.

First, getting into the prestigious competition was challenging enough. Haifa had to get through three qualifying rounds against high-level clubs which included Greek champ Olympiakos, Cypriot side Apollon Limassol and then Serbian stalwart Red Star Belgrade.

To then be able to defeat Italian giant Juventus at Sammy Ofer Stadium – and not only win but keep a blank sheet in a 2-0 result – is an extraordinary accomplishment as the budget gap between the two teams is roughly half a billion dollars.

Juventus can afford to bring in the best of the best and pay them their deserving wages. In Haifa’s case, most of its import players are those who have not reached European glory for one reason or another, be it inconsistency, injuries, or just the luck of the draw being in the right place at the right time.

The Greens began the group stage in Portugal with a date at Benfica, a club that won back-to-back European championships in the 1960s while also having won its domestic league title 37 times. That game ended in a 2-0 Benfica win, which was not surprising in Haifa’s first game back in Champions League play in over a decade.

Next up was a home tilt against Paris Saint-Germain and all of its stars in Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. Bachar put together a brilliant game plan and Haifa was in the contest, scoring first via Chery before finally succumbing 3-1 in what was a match that made waves around the world.

In Torino, just as Yom Kippur came to a close, Haifa once again put on a great show by outplaying Juventus on the road and was also in the game throughout the 90 minutes which saw Dean David score to cut the lead to 2-1 late. But an 83rd-minute goal for Juventus put the game away. However, Haifa knew full well that it could beat Juve at home in the return leg and that is exactly what happened two weeks later.

In Israel, Bachar’s charges had their confidence sky-high as they were poised and determined to record their first points of the campaign. Omer Atzily struck early and often as the winger went right for the Italian's gut and scored a first-half brace to put the game away in front of over 30,000 delirious fans.

The Greens made a statement and took the three points with pride and honor, which not only gave them a huge boost in their continental campaign it kept them in the running for a Europa League knockout stage spot.

Matchday 5 saw Haifa head to France, where it knew that it was going to be in for a rough go as PSG did not want a repeat of what had taken place in Israel the previous month. Messi, Mbappe and Neymar looked like they picked Haifa in a game of FIFA on a Playstation console, absolutely going on an offensive tear to cruise to a 7-2 victory.

The Greens had actually cut the lead to 4-2, but then three unanswered goals wiped out any thoughts of a surprise. On one hand, Bachar lost big, on the other he decided to play a wide-open game that entertained the masses and as they say, any news is good news, and as the result made sports reports once again around the globe.

All in all, the Haifa players and coaches can hold their heads high as to how the campaign went despite being outscored 13-3 over the last two games. Israeli teams will never have it easy in the Champions League as the gap between the clubs from the top levels of Europe is just too great. The fact that the Greens advanced to the group stage, and out of a very tricky qualifying campaign, is really the big prize.

Now Bachar will focus on the domestic Premier League, where the Greens find themselves in the first place. Should Haifa win the Israeli league title, it would become the first local team to play in the Champions League and also hoist the championship plate at the end of the season.

That will now be the goal for Maccabi Haifa as it looks to continue to make its mark and write itself into the annals of Israeli soccer history.