Zahavi’s brace overturns first-leg defeat to Plzen and keeps Tel Aviv’s group-stage hopes alive.
By ALLON SINAI
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Champions League dream is alive and kicking after an Eran Zahavi brace gave the yellow-and-blue a 2-0 win at Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic on Wednesday night, completing a dramatic comeback in the third qualifying round for a 3-2 victory on aggregate.Maccabi will discover on Friday who it will face in the final playoff round for a place in the group stage after two Zahavi goals in seven second-half minutes turned the tie on its head.Last week’s 2-1 defeat in the first leg at Bloomfield Stadium left the three-time defending Israeli champion with a mountain to climb, and Maccabi looked like it had no chance of scaling the peak for much of Wednesday night.Plzen goalkeeper Matus Kozacik was barely troubled for the first 70 minutes at the Doosan Arena and the Czechs seemed to be cruising to the playoffs.Maccabi registered a mere two shots towards Plzen’s goal in the first 70 minutes, with only one attempt finding the target.However, Zahavi scored from the penalty spot in the 76th minute after being tumbled over in the box and completed the comeback in the 83rd minute with a superb finish in front of goal.Maccabi is aiming to reach the group stage for the second time in club history, and the first since the 2004/05 season. It is not expected to be seeded in Friday’s draw, meaning it could face some stern opposition on its way to the group stage.AdvertisementHowever, even should Maccabi be knocked out in the playoffs, it will be handed a berth in the Europa League group stage, ensuring the yellow-and-blue fans will enjoy continental soccer deep into the winter.Maccabi coach Slavisa Jokanovic will be hoping Tel Aviv will add to its squad ahead of the first leg in two weeks, with the yellow-and-blue only signing defender Tal Ben-Haim and Avi Rikan so far this summer.Maccabi has got another 1.5 million euros to spend on new recruits if it chooses to after selling two players on Tuesday. Ben Reichert left for Hapoel Tel Aviv for one million euros, while Lanry Kahinda was purchased by Belgian club Mouscron-Peruwelz for 500,000 euros.Jokanovic made four changes to the lineup which lost in the first leg, including handing striker Barak Itzhaki a starting role after he scored Maccabi’s goal as a substitute last week.However, it was Plzen which registered the first chance of the match, with Ondrej Vanek testing goalkeeper Juan Pablo from 20 meters out after five minutes.The yellow-and-blue struggled to create scoring opportunities and Plzen was more than content on sitting back and cruising to the final whistle.Maccabi was lucky not to find itself a goal down three minutes into the second half when Aidin Mahmutovic’s shot smashed against the crossbar.However, Plzen would ultimately pay a dear price for its lax approach, with Zahavi’s double booking Maccabi’s place in the next stage to the delight of the traveling support.There were two more Israeli players who celebrated their progress to the Champions League playoffs on Wednesday.Nir Biton played 90 minutes in Celtic’s 0-0 draw against Qarabag in Azerbaijan, with the Scots advancing after winning the first leg 1-0.Bibras Natcho played with CSKA Moscow in the Champions League group stage last season, but his team’s hopes of making a return looked to be all but over after it dropped to a 2-0 deficit at Sparta Prague on Wednesday, with the first leg in Moscow ending in a 2-2 draw. However, goals by Ahmed Musa (34, 51) and Alan Dzagoev (76) sent Natcho into the playoffs in the League Route where CSKA could face Manchester United next.
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