Haifa falls to Benifca, but Champions League campaign should be celebrated as a success

Nov 2, 2022 | Football

Maccabi Haifa tried their hardest to end their UEFA Champions League campaign on a high note that would have seen them advance to the Europe League knockout stages, but it wasn’t meant to be as the Greens fell 6-1 at home to Benfica.

Barak Bachar’s squad entered the final group stage game with a chance to become the first Israeli team to finish in third place behind Paris St. Germain and Benfica and that looked to be the case with strong first half play behind the tremendous fan support at Sammy Ofer Stadium that saw the match all knotted up at 1-1 after 45 minutes of action. However, The Portuguese side had no interest to follow in the footsteps of Juventus who fell in Israel last month and turned the jets on to score five unanswered goals to seal the victory and also take first place in Group H on goal differential over PSG.

Gonçalo Ramos opened the scoring by nodding the ball by Haifa keeper Josh Cohen for a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute. But that advantage would be short lived as the Greens were awarded a penalty thanks to Alexander Bah’s handball in the box. Veteran midfielder Tjaron Chery stepped up and made no mistake with his spot kick to draw the hosts even at 1-1 to the delight of the over 30,000 supporters that asked every nook and cranny in at Sammy Ofer.

Unfortunately for Bachar’s squad that would be the last highlight of the continental campaign. Forward Petar Musa headed home a Bah cross in the 59th minute to give Roger Schmidt’s team a 2-1 lead and open the floodgates. Alejandro Grimaldo curled a perfect free kick around the Haifa wall ten minutes later to double the advantage while Rafa Silva tapped home a David Neres ball to go up 4-1 in the 73rd minute.

As the game continued on, the Haifa players tired which in turn resulted in another pair of goals against Josh Cohen as Henrique Araújo and Joao Mario finished off the Greens once and for all to end their Champions League campaign having scored 7 goals while conceding 21 and giving the club’s brass plenty to think about should they again qualify to the competition.

“It’s hard to sum-up the whole campaign right after it all ends,” Bachar said. “I am disappointed to have conceded so many goals in the last two matches but I am proud of the way we played throughout most of the games.”

“Giving up six goals is not peasant and it’s unfortunate. We gave a huge effort in the first half but after the score was 2-1 we fell apart. We played against the best team in the group and it’s too bad that it had to end this way, it’s painful. Despite finishing the game the way we did the fans gave us tremendous support which is something I will never take for granted.”

“I congratulated the players and showed them my respect for what they did today and in the group,” Schmidt said following the game. “We finished the group stage at a very high level and we wanted to believe that we could do it again today. We believed we could finish with more points than PSG, but we both won. The players deserve this. It’s a great feat for them.”

Haifa captain, midfielder Neta Lavi also spoke about the game that was, ”I am disappointed at how the game ended, I guess we were just too tired at the end. We are proud at what we did as a team and it was an amazing journey for us as players.”

Looking back at Maccabi Haifa’s campaign, the Greens can be very proud of their showing despite only winning one of their six group stage games. First to get into the prestigious competition was challenging enough. Haifa had to get by three qualifying rounds against high-level clubs which included Greek champs Olmpiakos, Cypriot side Apollon Limassol and then Serbian stalwarts Red Star Belgrade.

To then be able to defeat Italian giants Juventus at Sammy Ofer Stadium and not only beat them but keep a blank sheet in a 2-0 win is extraordinary accomplishment as the budget gap between the two teams is roughly half a billion dollars.

Juventus can afford to bring in the best of the best and pay them their deserving wages. In Haifa’s case, most of their import players are those who have not reached European glory for one reason or another, be it inconsistency, injuries or just the luck of the draw being in the right place at the right time.

The Greens began the groups stages in Portugal with a date at Benfica, a club that won back to back European championships in the 1960’s while also having won their domestic league title 37 times. That game ended in a 2-0 Benfica win which was not surprising in the club’s first game back in Champions League play in over a decade.

Next up was a home tilt against Paris St. Germain and all of their stars in Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. Bachar put together a brilliant game plan and Haifa was in the contest scoring first via Tjaron Chery but finally succumbed 3-1 in what was a match that made waves around the world. That performance would be spoken about by the water coolers the next morning across the globe as to how Haifa were able to limit PSG and that Bachar is a world class head coach.

In Torino, just as Yom Kippur came to a close, Haifa once again put on a great show by outplaying Juventus on the road and were also in the game throughout the 90 minutes which saw Dean David score to cut the lead to 2-1 late. But an 83rd minute goal put the game away, however, Haifa knew full well that they could beat Juve at home in the return leg and that is exactly what happened two weeks later.

At Sammy Ofer Stadium, Bachar’s charges had their confidence sky high as they were poised and determined to record their first points of the campaign. Omer Atzily struck early and often as the winger went right for the Italians gut and scored a first half brace to put the game away in front of over 30,000 delirious fans. Haifa made a statement and took the 3-points with pride and honor which not only gave them a huge boost in their continental campaign it kept them in the running for a Europa League knockout stage spot. 

Matchday 5 saw the Greens head to France where they knew that they were going to be in for a rough go as PSG did not want a repeat of what had taken place in Israel the previous month of September. Messi, Mbappe and Neymar looked like they cooked Haifa in a game of FIFA on a Playstation console, absolutely going on an offensive tear to cruise to a 7-2 victory. The Greens had cut the lead to 4-2 but then three unanswered goals wiped out any thoughts of a surprise. On one hand, Bachar lost big, on the other he decided to play a wide open game which entertained the masses and as they say any news is good news as the result made sports reports once again around the globe. 

All in all, Haifa can hold their heads high as to how the campaign went despite being out scored 13-3 over the last two games. Israeli teams will never have it easy in the Champions League as the gap between the clubs from the top levels of Europe are just too great. The fact that the Greens advanced to the group stages and out of a very tricky qualifying campaign is really the big prize.

Now Bachar will focus on the domestic league where they find themselves in first place. Should Haifa win the Israeli league title they would become the first local team to play in the Champions League and also hoist the championship plate at the end of the season.

That will now be the goal for the Greens as they look to continue to make their mark and write themselves into the annals of Israeli soccer history.

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