By Ofer Ronen-Abels at Bloomfield stadium
Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC advanced to the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time in the club's history after a 1-0 second-leg win against Greek side PAOK FC completed a 4-0 aggregate victory.
Having seen their 2-1 first-leg victory in Greece converted into a 3-0 success after PAOK fielded an ineligible player, the Israeli side kicked off confident of securing progress to the competition proper and all but wrapped up their place in Thursday’s draw as early as the eighth minute.
Erez Mesika, who scored the second goal in Thessaloniki, curled in an accurate cross from the left that fell kindly for Liran Cohen. The talented young winger, whose late goal had earned Maccabi victory against HJK Helsinki in the second qualifying round, calmly placed his shot past Elias Atmatsidis to leave the visitors needing to score five to win.
To the delight of the 12,000 crowd that outcome never looked likely, with the home supporters basking in their favourites' triumph and vociferously supporting their team. The Israeli Premier League side responded accordingly with some impressive attacking football, only for Tamir Cohen to waste an excellent chance to double their lead on the night.
Although PAOK struggled to raise themselves after the blow of Cohen's early goal, the Greek side attempted to find a way back into the match as the second half wore on. Tel-Aviv goalkeeper and captain Liran Strauber was soon forced into action, producing two saves in quick succession to deny PAOK forwards Nikolaos Skarmoutsos and Georgios Theodoridis.
Siam sent off
Despite the comfortable final margin of victory the night ended on a sour note for the home side as young left-back Salem Abu Siam collected a second caution midway through the second half and was sent off. Nothing could dampen the celebrations at the final whistle, however, with fans and players jubilant at their club's achievement.