For 13 glorious minutes Wednesday night, Maccabi Haifa might have been the greatest soccer team in the world. For 69 minutes, the pride of Israel ran alongside giants, keeping impossible pace with some of the greatest players the pitch has ever known.
And then reality crashed the party, leaving Sammy Ofer Stadium with only the memory — or was it a dream — of the night that could have seen one of the greatest upsets in Israeli sports history.
Facing off against Paris Saint-Germain, home to such top-flight stars as Argentine Lionel Messi, Brazilian Neymar and France’s Kylian Mbape, Maccabi Haifa fell 3-1 in a UEFA Champions League group play.
The loss had been widely expected, but few, if any, could have predicted that it would take PSG, one of a handful of teams favored to win the whole enchilada, until the 88th minute to finally erase suddenly realistic thoughts of a Haifa victory.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 30,421, Haifa raced out to an early lead over the French powerhouse in the 24th minute as Suriname international Tjarron Chery volleyed home a cross from Dolev Haziza.
The goal broke a streak of seven straight Champions League group stage matches in which Haifa failed to find the back of the net a single time, going all the way back to 2002, when it drew 3-3 against Greek side Olympiacos.
Haifa briefly thought they had managed to go up 2-0 minutes later when Frantzdy Pierrot put the ball over the line, but he was called offside. Alas, some scenarios are too farfetched even for this reverie.
PSG equalized in the 37th minute when Mbappe’s low cross was deflected perfectly to Messi, who slotted the ball past goalkeeper Josh Cohen from close range.
It would take until 24 minutes after halftime for PSG to finally take a seemingly inevitable lead, as Messi slipped a pass-through for Mbappe to slide a shot into the far corner of the goal.
Haifa continued to challenge PSG’s shaky defense, as it had throughout the game. As time wound down, Chery blazed a free-kick over the goal, but seconds later PSG countered and Neymar fired the ball into the bottom corner to put the game away for good in the 88th minute.
Even despite the loss, Haifa came away from the match with stars in its eyes. Coverage of the game in Israel’s sports media treated the final score almost as an afterthought, compared to its short-lived lead.
“The final score won’t be remembered,” gushed the Sport5 website, “but those 13 minutes, and the amazing minutes throughout the game, will never be forgotten.”
“It’s a bit odd to say but we felt too comfortable,” said Haifa coach Barak Bakhar. “We felt like we were in control of the game… We knew we would be punished for the smallest mistakes. With a little more luck, we could’ve scored at least one more goal.”
“In the end, their quality was what decided it,” he added.
Mbappe agreed: “The fact that the three of us can make the difference in a game is an advantage for us,” he told Canal Plus.
PSG could have taken the lead inside 70 seconds as Mbappe burst into the box, only to see his effort kept out by a sprawling save from goalkeeper Cohen.
Maccabi meanwhile, managed to keep PSG’s defense on its toes with successive attacks throughout the night.
“[Haifa] pushed hard in a really good atmosphere,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier told RMC Sport. “We weren’t well organized, quickly split in two, and that made the first half difficult. We needed to put things right, and after the break, we were much more compact.”
“We have to improve. We have to work,” Mbappe said.
The win puts PSG at the top of Group H in the European tourney on goals scored above Benfica, who won 2-1 at Juventus after beating Maccabi 2-0 last week in Lisbon.
Haifa, ranked lowest of the 32 teams in the group stage, remains in the cellar, just below Juventus, which it will face in Italy on October 5. The top two teams will advance to the round of 16, a spot no Israeli team has ever reached.
Few Israeli teams even rise to the level of the Champions League group stage. This is Maccabi’s third trip. Maccabi Tel Aviv has made it to the group stage twice and Hapoel Tel Aviv once.
Haifa will travel to Paris on October 25 to face off against PSG again.