Soccer: Mac Haifa closes in on Champions League spot

Levy's Greens produce superb performance to defeat Salzburg 2-1 in Austria.

maccabi haifa celebrate 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
maccabi haifa celebrate 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa took a massive step towards clinching a place in the Champions League group stage on Wednesday night, defeating Red Bull Salzburg 21 in Austria in the first leg of the competition's playoffs. Haifa will host Salzburg at National Stadium in Ramat Gan next Tuesday, and following Wednesday's result will be extremely confident of reaching the group stage of European soccer's premier competition for the second time in club history and for the first time since the 2002/03 season. Maccabi was superb for the first 30 minutes of the first leg, and thoroughly deserved to take the lead through Mohammed Ghadir in the 22nd minute. Salzburg slowly got back into the match, but it wasn't until the 57th minute that the hosts equalized thanks to Alexander Zickler's goal. The Austrians were in control after that, but it was Haifa which claimed the priceless victory, with substitute Shlomi Arbaitman scoring the winner in the 84th minute. Maccabi should have really taken the lead after three minutes. Eyal Golasa had time and space in the Salzburg box following a nice exchange of passes with Vladimir Dvalishvili, but his powerful shot was well saved by 'keeper Eddie Gustafsson. In the 22nd minute, the visitors finally scored the goal they so deserved. Right-back Eyal Meshumar released a superb cross and the 18-year-old Ghadir gave Gustafsson no chance with his header from five meters out. Haifa was content on entering the break with the slenderest of leads, but very nearly doubled its advantage on the stroke of halftime when Katan's cross was cleared by Gustafsson's long arms. The Israeli champion then came very close to scoring its second goal in the first minute of the second half, with Ghadir once more at the center of the happenings. The forward broke forward quickly and released a thunderous effort from just inside the box, but Gustafsson was once again up to the task. However, Haifa's early chance was not a sign of things to come, with Salzburg continuing to control the proceedings. The 35-year-old Zickler was causing the Haifa defense real problems and in the 57th minute he tied the score. Zickler beat both Dekel Keinan and Shai Maimon to Gustafsson's long goal kick and slotted the ball beyond the helpless Davidovich. Haifa coach Elisha Levy made two substitutions in quick succession following the goal and Gustavo Boccoli, who replaced Ghadir, very nearly scored with his first touch. The Brazilian beat his defender, but his left footed shot to the center of goal was saved by the 'keeper. Salzburg seemed to be the likelier winner for the remainder of the match, but it was Haifa which snatched the victory four minutes from time. Substitute Lior Rafaelov passed the ball perfectly to fellow sub Shlomi Arbaitman and the striker scored with a cool finish to give Haifa a memorable victory. There were three more away victories in the Champions League playoffs on Wednesday night. Zurich defeated Ventspils 3-0, Hungary's Debrecen beat Levski Sofia 2-1 and Atletico Madrid defeated Panathinaikos 3-2 in Athens. The one team to win at home was France's Lyon, which has surely all but booked its place in the group stage after thrashing Anderlecht 5-1.