Matchday 4 of the Champions League arrived in Haifa at 9:45 local time Wednesday night, with Porto bringing their roster, valued at 178 million Euros, to face Maccabi Tel Aviv, with their roster valued at 20 million Euros. Unlike in the Biblical narrative, though, in this match of David against Goliath, it didn’t end too well for David.
Despite a spirited opening few minutes last night for Maccabi, the Portuguese giants seized a 1:0 first half lead at the Sammy Ofer with a goal from Christian Tello in the 19th minute. A second goal came from Andre Andre in the 49th minute, and Mexican defender Miguel Layun made it 3:0 in the 72nd minute.
With the home crowd now staring at the prospect of a fourth consecutive shutout in the Champions League for Maccabi, and the goal differential standing at an atrocious 0-11, the collective desperation for something, anything, to happen in the goal-scoring department was palpable, and I was feeling it to, frustratingly watching the game on ESPN3.
Eran Zahavi had spent the better part of the second half being pesky in the offensive third, but legendary Porto keeper Iker Casillas was a worthy adversary, batting away two excellent chances after the break. But when Zahavi was fouled in the box in the 74th minute, the crowd erupted in first, protest, and then delirious joy as Greek referee Tasos Sidiropoulos showed a yellow card to Maxi Pereira and then pointed to the spot.
Breaking the unwritten rule that the player who drew the penalty call should not take the subsequent spot kick, Zahavi stood over the ball, a mere 12 yards separating Israel’s greatest scorer of this generation and Casillas, one of the greatest goalkeepers in world. To say that the fate of the world rested in the balance would be a moderate overstatement, but not entirely so- if the kick was missed the collective lamentation over the blown opportunity would have been borderline hysterical.
But with all of the confidence in the world, Zahavi’s blasted his kick past the dive of Casillas, who had guessed correctly, and into the bottom left corner of the net, to give Maccabi their precious goal and bring a semblance of pride to the result and the Champions League campaign. The crowd erupted, Zahavi celebrated, I screamed at my desk for about 30 seconds, and the world did not end. The goal is at 2:18 of the highlight video.
As Bob Ryan famously remarked after David Ortiz’ extra-inning home run in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, “What it did was dignify the series. A sweep would have been intolerable here.” We all know what happened next.
Zahavi's goal had a similar mearning. While it will not propel Maccabi into the knockout round, it dignified the group stage for the club and validated, if only for a moment, that they can play in the Champions League. With their loss they dropped to 0-0-4 and stand no chance of advancing to the next round, and will need to beat both Chelsea at home on November 24 and Dynamo Kiev in Kiev on December 9 to have any chance of finishing in third place in the group and qualifying for the Europa League.
See Bob’s famous quote at 8:27 of this clip.