There’s nothing better than a European Football Night. Nothing, zip, zero. And that’s what we got on Wednesday evening at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa as Maccabi Haifa were able to mount a comeback and defeat Red Star Belgrade 3-2 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Playoff Round tie.
The best of the best, the stars, the pomp and circumstance, the Champions League anthem, the flag, the shivers down the spine, the goosebumps, the desire, the drive and the all around effort by all those on the pitch and by those in the stands make such a European night an unforgettable one.
European nights in Haifa! pic.twitter.com/VDoX4ysRVC
— Sports Rabbi (@thesportsrabbi) August 17, 2022
Memories are created, heroes are made and coaches are anointed on these nights when we all witness the highest level of football.
The top players raise their game not one notch, not two notches but as high as they can physically and mentally push the envelope. Sweat and tears are the result of the highs and lows that will permeate throughout the stadium as the pendulum of emotions swing from one side to the other, rarely stopping for a moment in the middle as end to end action is the name of the game on a European night.
Dolev Haziza with three assists was masterful as he proved to be the best player on the pitch. His overall effort should be a school lesson for anyone trying to master their craft. Fancy Frantzdy Pierrot with a brace lifted his game and once again found the back of the goal when called upon, whether it was making the correct turn and slotting the ball home, or being able to just nod the sphere by a helpless Red Star keeper.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” Haziza said. “It’s the moment that every player dreams of. We believed from the outset and we scored a quick goal. We pressed well immediately after but then we gave up a goal out of nowhere. When you make a mistake against this type of club you’ll be punished. We want to push forward and advance.”
Tjaron Chery, was yet another player who shifted gears into unknown levels made sure to get that winner and send the Greens into a red hot Marakana Stadium with a one goal advantage which is certainly better than going into the second leg all knotted up.
“This was a great game with a fantastic crowd but the next game will be different,” Chery said. “However, if we play the way we did then we have a good chance to advance to the group stages. We wanted to win the game at this level, we waited for this and it happened. But we still have another goal next week. I hope that what we did was enough.”
Make no mistake, the head coach Barak Bachar’s players know exactly where they are heading and into what type of cauldron that is awaiting them. The Greens bench boss will have his charges ready to go after going for it at home and they all know that this game is a point of no return. It’s do or die to face the most prestigious football clubs in Europe or perhaps in the world. But make no mistake this will be a version of hell on earth which is the narrative that Red Star gaffer Dejan Stankovic was already setting the stage for at the post match press conference as he himself looked like he was ready himself to step right onto the pitch.
“We’re not that surprised about how Haifa played as we knew they were quick and talented but I’m sure at the Marakana we will be able to contend with them and use our qualities to our advantage,” the Belgrade coach said.
Bachar, who has already experienced near Champions League near misses when he was in charge of Beer Sheva knows that this is an entirely different story but also one that he feels is a passable test, “I don’t want to look at what was in the past. I’m at a different club now and while it’s a similar situation we still have another step to go. We have a team that has shown that we can handle a tough away game as we did at Olympiacos and we really believe that we can do this.”
There’s no doubt that Haziza and Pierrot were the stars of the show combining for what is turning into a lethal duo, but Bachar wanted to keep the pair level headed after the match, downplaying their dynamite performance.
“Pierrot is a terrific striker and he has certain qualities that brings an element to the game, but it’s still just the start of the season and there’s plenty of time to go. Dolev has made a jump this season both physically and mentally on the pitch and we have a team that is now very flexible because of that.”
Speaking of the French striker, Pierrot understands that there is still a long way to go in order to get to the promised land, “We won the first game but it’s only half of the job, it’s not over and we have another tough match in the return leg which won’t be easy. In fact, this one wasn’t simple either. We are all happy but we know what is in front of us.”
WOW! Maccabi Haifa fans putting on a show! pic.twitter.com/N5UpkhGujL
— Sports Rabbi (@thesportsrabbi) August 17, 2022
The Maccabi Haifa supporters certainly put on an impressive show with their TIFO, cheering, singing and dancing, but the dangerous Osman Bukari warned that the Greens have something totally out of this world waiting for them in Belgrade.
“The fans in Haifa are very good, but Belgrade will be something totally different. Have you seen the videos? Get ready for it and if you come to the Marakana you will see our fans and you will just die.”
Guelor Kanga who scored the second Red Star goal was also confident following the game, “We thought it would be hard but this was a crazy game. Maccabi Haifa is a great team but despite the loss, we are still favorites to advance to the Champions League and I really believe that we will do just that. The fans here were terrific but in Belgrade you’ll see the best fans in the world.”
“This isn’t over for us or them and we have to win and stay with our game plan,” Pierrot commented. “If we give it our all I think it’s possible for us to advance. It’s a team effort and I am part of the team. I am doing everything in my power in order for the team to advance but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the entire team.”
“I’m happy that we were able to win this game but next week we have a super tough game. We deserved to win, but in Belgrade it’s an entirely different story. As a child I never dreamed of getting to the group stages. We will give everything that we have for it to happen.”