Eran Zahavi made a triumphant return to Maccabi Tel Aviv as the Israeli superstar scored a late goal to give the yellow-and-blue a 2-0 triumph over Aris Thessaloniki in UEFA Conference League first leg, third round qualifying.
In front of over 21,000 fans, Maccabi grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute via Djorde Jovanovic while Zahavi added the insurance marker in the 84th minute after having come in as a second half substitute to the delight of the fans who sang his name at the top of their lungs.
Head coach Vladen Ivic’s squad will now ready for the second leg in Greece next week at the Kleanthis Vikelidis as the yellow-and-blue will look to punch their ticket to the playoff round of the competition.
“I had one goal when I came in which was to score and help the club,” Eran Zahavi said following the game. “I’m happy that I was able to score an important goal, but we haven’t finished the job so we need to relax a bit. I’ve scored a lot of goals over the past few years but there’s no question that this was one of the most exciting and emotional ones. Everyone dreamed of this moment for many years.”
Maccabi head coach Vladen Ivic spoke about the victory, “We played a good game and of course there is plenty to improve on. We played a number of various formations and we won 2-0 but we still have an away game which will be a totally different story. Our goal is to advance to the next stage and we worked hard the past month and a half so we are hoping that we will be even better.”
Aris head coach German Burgos also gave his thoughts on the match, “It was injustice for us as we created 7-8 clear situations for a goal. It’s the first half and we will now prepare the second half. We will need to have draw and then win the game.”
Midfielder Manu Gonzalez reflected on the defeat but feels that his team has a chance in the return leg, “There is confidence we can do something in the home game and turn it around. Near the end of this match we lost some good opportunities to score a goal and we deserved at least one.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv controlled the tempo from the get go as Sheran Yeini sent a terrific pass to Gaby Kanichowsky, but Aris keeper Julian made the stop on a one on one situation in the 9th minute while quarter hour later the shot stopper was up to the task as he made a point blank save on Djorde Jovanovic.
However the striker made up for his missed opportunity when he raced down the left flank and took a ball from Kanichowsky on a 3-1 situation and beat Julian to give the yellow-and-blue a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute. Juan Iturbe tried to find the equalizer via a free kick right at the strike of halftime but the former Roma winger’s attempt went over the bar as Maccabi took a 1-0 lead into the second half.
Maccabi came out strong in the second half as Matan Hozez almost finished off a nice passing play but his quality chance in the box was taken care of by an active Julian in the 49th minute while the minutes later Nir Bitton’s low liner went wide left of the goal.
Vladen Ivic made wholesale changes soon thereafter as Oscar Glouch, Idan Nachmias, Stipe Perica and Eran Zahavi all entered the fray as the latter came close to scoring on his first touch but once again Julian made the timely save. Rafael Camacho came close to knotting up the score but his opportunity came up short in the 67th minute.
Zahavi had yet another chance to double the Maccabi advantage when he took a give and go from Glouch but his attempt just went wide, however his next chance would hit the target in style.
Perica came steaming down the center of the pitch and laid the ball off for Zahavi who sent a perfect shot on the grass which went right off the left post and into the goal for a 2-0 lead in the 84th minute.
But Aris wouldn’t give up so quickly as Cheik Doukoure’s header was just saved by a leaping Peretz and Camacho missed a wide open goal as Maccabi will head to Greece for the second leg with a 2-0 lead.
In other Conference League action, Hapoel Beer Sheva blanked Lugano 2-0 as Elyaniv Barda’s team will return home to Turner Stadium for the second leg next week in position to advance to the playoff round. Tomer Yosefi opened the scoring when he headed with authority a Eugene Ansah ball into the back the goal for a 1-0 lead for the southern reds in the 39th minute just ahead of the halftime break. Striker Astrit Selmani added a second goal for Beer Sheva when he latched onto a Micha ball and put it into the Lugano goal for a 2-0 win in the first leg of the third round qualifying tie.
“We began the game well and we scored a goal that we deserved,” Beer Sheva coach Elyaniv Barda said. “In the second half we went backwards a bit which was expected, but we knew how to close out properly and we were able to score a second goal which was super important. As far as I am concerned we only did half the job and this result is dangerous. We have to come home and work on our mistakes.”