Draw in Romania enough to lift Greens

Rayo scores as Mac Haifa advances to group stage with 3-1 aggregate victory over Astra.

rayo 370 (photo credit: Uzi Gal)
rayo 370
(photo credit: Uzi Gal)
Maccabi Haifa joined Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League group stage on Thursday night, recording a comfortable 1-1 draw at Astra of Romania to claim a 3-1 aggregate win in the playoffs.
The Greens outplayed the Romanians in the first leg at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium last week, but were forced to settle for a two-goal triumph, leaving Astra with a fighting chance in the second leg.
Astra was well placed to overturn the deficit after taking the lead through Valerica Gaman in the 27th minute, ending Haifa’s hopes of recording a sixth straight clean sheet in continental competition after crushing Xazar Lankaran 10-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round and beating FK Ventspils 3-0 in the third round.
However, Rayo caught Astra goalkeeper Silviu Lung off guard with his free kick from a tight angle just seven minutes later, breaking Romanian hearts.
“We accomplished our goal of reaching the group stage and I’m proud of my players who didn’t panic despite going a goal down,” said Haifa coach Arik Benado.
The group stage draw will take place in Monaco on Friday, with the likes of Tottenham, Valencia and PSV Eindhoven among the powerhouses possibly awaiting Israel’s representatives.
Haifa will be placed in the third seeding pot, with Tel Aviv to be drawn from the fourth and final pot.
Tel Aviv was gifted a berth to the group stage, benefiting from the consequences of a match-fixing scandal in Ukraine way back in April 2008.
Earlier this month, Metalist Kharkiv was kicked out of the Champions League by UEFA’s appeals committee after the Ukraine federation found it guilty of manipulating a match played more than five years ago.
As a result, last year’s Ukrainian league runner-up was replaced by the opponent the Israeli champion should have met in the Europa League playoffs, Greek side PAOK Thessaloniki, clearing the way for the yellow-and-blue.
With its home stadium not being approved to host matches in the Europa League playoffs, Astra was forced to play Haifa at the sub-standard Stadionul Ceahlaul in Piatra Neamt and it displayed little impetus on the swampy pitch.
Set pieces were always going to be key in such conditions and the hosts took the lead from a corner kick in the 27th minute.
Haifa ’keeper Bojan Saranov failed to clear the corner and the rebound fell kindly for Gaman, who easily slotted in the opener.
After orchestrating the show for Haifa so far this season, Rayo experienced a very quiet start to the game, but was still in charge of the crucial away goal.
The Spanish midfielder curled in a free-kick from a difficult angle, with ’keeper Lung reaching the ball, only to parry it into his own net.
Rayo’s strike took all the steam out of the Romanians as it meant they required three more goals to complete a comeback.
Haifa would have recorded a victory had Alon Turgeman and Shimon Abuhazira not continued their wasteful ways in front of goal.
However, the Greens couldn’t care less at the final whistle, securing their progress to the Europa League group stage for the second time in three seasons and continuing their promising start to 2013/14.
On TV: Europa League group draw (live on Sport 1 and Eurosport at 2 p.m.)