By Dimitra Pappa
Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC took a significant step towards the group stage of the UEFA Champions League with a surprising victory away to PAOK FC in Greece.
With PAOK attempting to reach the competition's group stage for the first time in their history, the intimidating Toumba Stadium was sold out. But the home team failed to rise to the occasion and instead had to struggle to mount a comeback from two goals down to give themselves a chance ahead of the second leg in Israel on 25 August.
After allowing PAOK the majority of the early possession, the visitors promptly pounced upon the first real chance they got to silence the crowd. On 12 minutes, Ishmael Addo took advantage of defensive uncertainty between Leonidas Vokolos and Ifeanyi Udeze to strike his left-foot shot past the flailing Elias Atmatsidis.
PAOK soon had opportunities to restore parity, with both Dimitris Salpingidis and Yiasoumis Yasemakis spurning good chances. Maccabi remained unflustered, though and, perhaps mindful of early-season rustiness, continued to absorb pressure. By contrast, PAOK looked shaky, their attacking moves were rushed and lacked composure while the defence looked disorganised.
It was therefore little surprise that Maccabi's second goal, three minutes before the interval, came from another defensive error, albeit this time by the goalkeeper, as midfield player Erez Mesika's cross from the left caught Atmatsidis off guard and flew into the top corner.
PAOK needed a quick goal after the interval and duly got it, this time courtesy of an error in the Maccabi back line. Four minutes into the second half, Loucas Karadimos provided a centre that the away defence failed to deal with and Yasemakis capitalised from close range to pull a goal back. A minute later and Maccabi nearly regained their two-goal cushion but Atmatsidis made amends for his earlier error with a spectacular save from Liran Cohen's powerful shot.
The second half was an end-to-end affair with the two teams taking it in turns to attack, but with little discipline. On the 73rd minute, the livewire Cohen went on a superb run but his attempted lob was misjudged and Atmatsidis made an easy save. Five minutes later, PAOK missed a fine chance with Yasemakis directing a header just wide of the right-hand post and the visitors held on for a hard-earned and crucial victory.