Down 1:0 at home, and needing to equalize to keep their dream of the Champions League alive, Maccabi Tel Aviv needed a goal to pull them level with Basel. And Eran Zahavi answered the call.

With a perfectly-timed run and a powerful, yet beautiful, left-footed finish, Zahavi’s goal in the 24th minute sent the announcers and a filled-to-the-rafters Bloomfield Stadium into a state of bedlam. That makes 7 goals in Maccabi’s 5 Champions League qualifiers for Zahavi, who continues to elevate his game and score huge goals just about every time he takes the pitch.

Maccabi held the back line in the second half, dodging a few bullets, including a big miss from Taulant Xhaka (great name, he’s Albanian FYI)and when the final whistle blew, the 3:3 aggregate score only told half the story, as Maccabi’s two goals in Basel last week (and oh my, remember the CR7-eque header by EZ7?) put Maccabi into the promised land of group stage play.

God bless away goals.

The last time Maccabi Tel Aviv made it the group stages was in 2004-5, when they were grouped with Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Ajax, and crashed out of the competition with a 1-1-4 record, good for 4 points and 4th place in the group.

A few years before that, Maccabi Haifa qualified for the group stages in 2002-3, where they were matched up with Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, and Olympiakos, where they won 2, drew 1, and lost 3. Maccabi Haifa fans will never, ever forget their 3:0 victory over Man U that in a match they “hosted” on Cyprus. A win for the ages.

Maccabi Haifa made another dramatic run to the group stages in 2009-10, drawing Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Bordeaux, but even more dramatically became the only team in the history of the Champions League to score zero goals and earn zero points in the 6 games they played. Let’s forget about that.

Most recently, Hapoel Tel Aviv qualified in 2010-11, and was placed in an uninspiring group of Olympique Lyon, Benfica, and Schalke. They were…. middling… winning one game (a 3-0 victory over Benfica), drawing 2, and losing 3.

With a pretty well-documented lack of success and generally underwhelming record in this round of the competition, there’s not a whole lot of rational hope for a top-2 place in their group and qualification for the Round of 16. The limit of most fans’ reasonable expectation would be some plucky play, a few positive results, and perhaps a 3rd place finish and placement in the Europa League knockout stages. However, Maccabi did just upend Basel, a top-16 team from last year’s Champions League, so never say never.

The draw for the group stage takes place on Thursday, so we should know not only their opponents, but the schedule for the games, by Shabbat. But make no mistake, we will get one of the European giants in Israel this fall (Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Benfica, Paris, Juventus, Zenit or PSV Eindhoven), another big-name club, and a third other European qualifier, in the group.

Group play kicks off on September 15 and 16.

I’m ready.

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