Gutman’s men fall 2-0 on the road in franchise’s first-ever CL group stage contest.
By ALLON SINAI
Hapoel Tel Aviv’s first taste of Champions League soccer was a bitter one, with the Israeli Premier League and State Cup double holder falling 2-0 to SL Benfica in Lisbon on Tuesday night.Hapoel impressed for large periods of its first ever group stage match in European soccer’s most prestigious competition, but even on a mediocre day, Benfica was clearly superior to the Israelis and fully deserved to claim all three points.Luisao smashed home the opener in the 21st minute and the win was secure after Oscar Cardozo scored in the 68th minute.The closest Hapoel would come to scoring was in the 86th minute when substitute Toto Tamuz smashed his shot against the woodwork. However, despite failing to find the back of the net, evoking memories of Maccabi Haifa’s goalless campaign last season, coach Eli Gutman had nothing but praise for his players performance.“I feel that we missed an opportunity,” said Gutman, who will hope Hapoel will learn from Tuesday’s experience when it hosts Lyon in its first home match at Bloomfield Stadium on September 29.“We came here to play soccer and not to just defend. We created enough chances and it is a shame we lacked that little piece of luck. We failed to score tonight, but we will do so in the next games.”In Group B’s other match, Lyon beat Schalke 1-0 thanks to Michel Bastos’s goal.Hapoel sat back at the start of its encounter at the half-empty Estadio da Luz, intent on not conceding an early goal. The visitors settled for long balls instead of stringing together short passes in typical fashion, resulting in quick turnovers.Benfica controlled the possession, but did very little with it, reaching its first chance in the 14th minute when Vincent Enyeama surged out of goal to save Oscar Cardozo’s shot.A minute later, referee Aleksei Nikolaev denied Hapoel a penalty.Itai Shechter was pulled down in the box by Luisao, but to Tel Aviv’s amazement, Nikolaev didn’t point to the spot.The bewildering officiating call galvanized Hapoel, which began to show some attacking initiative and was finally finding its rhythm.However, just when it began to seem as if a Tel Aviv goal was just around the corner, Benfica struck.Luisao was left unmarked in the box and his great volley in the 21st minute left Enyeama with no chance.Two minutes later, Shechter was toppled in the box once more, but yet again the referee saw a dive and not a penalty, and brandished the striker with a yellow card.Hapoel continued to play well in the subsequent minutes, but it was Benfica, who reached the better opportunities.Pablo Aimar and Nicolas Gaitan both had chances before Hapoel’s right-back Danny Bondarv recorded Hapoel’s one and only shot on goal in the first half, sending a surprising effort in the 36th minute that was only denied by an acrobatic Roberto save.Despite coming close to equalizing, Tel Aviv had Enyeama to thank for being just one goal down at the break, after the Nigerian timed his dive to perfection to keep out Carlos Martins dangerous shot.The visitors continued their positive play at the beginning of the second half, with Gili Vermut trying a cheeky chip from the edge of the box 10 minutes after the break.A minute later, Gutman’s team was lucky not to find itself in a two-goal deficit, with Cardozo blasting the ball over the crossbar from five meters out.Hapoel visibly tired as the match progressed and it was clear the hosts would eventually double their lead.Gutman tried to freshen up his team by introducing substitutes Tamuz and Yossi Shivhon, but Benfica would clinch its win in the 68th minute.Maxi Pereira’s initial shot was saved by Enyeama, but Cardozo was on hand to easily slot in the second goal of the night.Good fortune was all that spared Hapoel from conceding more goals, and despite Tamuz hitting the post in the 86th minute, Tel Aviv was happy to hear the final whistle blow and return home with a minimal defeat.
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