Reds claim crucial 3-1 conquest at Bloomfield to dispatch Aktobe 3-2 on aggregate.
By ALLON SINAI
Hapoel Tel Aviv has got the Champions League group stage in its sights after defeating FK Aktobe 3-1 at Bloomfield Stadium on Tuesday night to complete a 3-2 aggregate victory over the Kazakhstan champion.After losing 1-0 in the first leg, Tel Aviv knew it would have its work cut out for it at Bloomfield and there were some worried fans after a nervy start.However, there was only going to be one winner once the hosts made the breakthrough via Eran Zehavi in the 16th minute, with two goals in four minutes courtesy of Ben Sahar (31) and an Aktobe own-goal (35) effectively clinching the tie by halftime.“We are delighted,” said Hapoel coach Eli Gutman, whose team has already guaranteed itself a long European season, as even a defeat in the playoffs will result in a place in the Europa League group stage.“This victory shows the strength of the club, its management, its fans and its players. I asked the players why they sat back in the second half and they said they were completely drained.”Hapoel will now turn its attention to Friday’s playoff round draw in Nyon, Switzerland, where despite being seeded favorably it is set to receive a far tougher obstacle on its way to realizing its dream of reaching the group stage of European soccer’s most prestigious competition for the first time in club history.The first leg of the playoffs will be played in two weeks, with the return leg to take place a week later.The hosts struggled at the start, failing to string together their characteristic passing moves and turning over the ball far more than usual.The pressure from last week’s 1-0 loss in Kazakhstan was clearly taking its toll, but a moment of brilliance in the 16th minute broke the deadlock.Itai Shechter battled past two players before squaring the ball perfectly from the right flank, leaving Zehavi with the simple task of slotting in the ball.The opener gave Tel Aviv some much needed confidence, but it wasn’t until Aktobe made a defensive mistake 15 minutes later that the hosts doubled their lead.Shechter picked out a poor Kazakh pass in the center of the field and sent through Sahar, who rounded the ’keeper before scoring his first goal as a Hapoel player.Despite the two-goal margin, the Reds were desperate to score a third and open a comfortable cushion. Four minutes later they were gifted what will surely be one of the most horrendous own-goals scored in continental competition throughout the coming season.Khalifa Elhadj Ba took a needless swipe at a harmless Hapoel long-ball and Sidelnikov could do no more than chase the ball into the back of the net.Tel Aviv’s third goal meant Aktobe needed to score twice to advance and the Kazakhs didn’t recover from the heartbreaking circumstances of the owngoal until the start of the second half.Aktobe had no choice but to commit more players forward, and seven minutes after the break the visitors came centimeters from getting back into the match.Marat Khayrullin had time and space on the edge of the box, but his crackling shot went just wide of Vincent Enyeama’s post.The visitors created little else in the remainder of the match, but there were some tense moments in the closing stages after Aktobe’s Murat Tleshev grabbed a goal in the 89th minute following a scramble on the goal-line.However, that would prove to be no more than a consolation-goal for the Kazakhs as Tel Aviv held on for a priceless victory.
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