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Maccabi seal historic progress

SK Sturm Graz 3-3 Maccabi Haifa FC(Aggregate: 3-5) Israeli champions fight back.

SK Sturm Graz 3-3 Maccabi Haifa FC (Maccabi win 5-3 on aggregate)
Maccabi Haifa FC became the first Israeli club to earn a place in the first group stage of the UEFA Champions League as they drew 3-3 with Austria's SK Sturm Graz to seal a 5-3 aggregate victory.

Topsy-turvy encounter
Leading 2-0 from the home leg, Maccabi produced a resilient display in a topsy-turvy encounter to silence the partisan crowd inside the Arnold Schwarzenegger stadium. The match was certainly eventful, with six goals and three red cards, but Haifa coach Itzhak Schum was unable to hide his delight on a night when his players set a new benchmark for Israeli football.

'Amazing players and fans'
"If someone deserves to be in the Champions League, it is Haifa's owner Ya'acov Schahar and this amazing set of players and fans," he said after the match, having watched Maccabi battle back from 1-0 and 3-1 down to seal a famous aggregate victory.

Bosnar the hero
The visitors got off to the worst possible start, falling behind after eleven minutes when goalkeeper Dudu Awate misjudged Eddy Bosnar's fizzing 30-metre free-kick. Yakubu Ayegbeni, whose two goals in the first leg had given Haifa their deserved advantage, was a constant thorn in the side of the Graz defence and he almost equalised in the 16th minute but sent his volley narrowly wide.

Vintage Rosso
Maccabi did finally equalise in the 27th minute when the Croatian-born Giovanni Rosso exchanged passes with Walid Badier and Alon Harazi down the right before catching Sturm goalkeeper Heinz Weber unawares at the far post with a low effort. Graz started the second period in sprightly fashion, however, and regained the lead 13 minutes after the interval, when Imre Szabics combined well with Gerald Strafner and sent a fierce left-footed drive beyond the helpless Awate.

Ayegbeni off
Maccabi's cause was not helped when Ayegbeni received his marching orders for an innocuous-looking challenge shortly after the hour mark, and their chances looked slimmer still when Günther Neukirchner increased the hosts' lead to 3-1 five minutes later.

Bosnar the villain
However, Adoram Keise pounced on Nenad Pralija's free-kick with 12 minutes remaining to reduce the arrears and Bosnar was sent off for a tackle on Pralija to level the numbers once more. Badier, whose participation as an ineligible player against FC Haka last season led to Maccabi's disqualification from the competition, then sealed a remarkable comeback in the dying seconds as he rounded the keeper to level the scores at 3-3. Martin Pregelj also saw red in the final moments to add insult to heartbreaking injury for Sturm.

'Our pleasure'
Rosso dedicated Maccabi's progress to the people of Israel, saying: "This is a great time for all the players here as this is the highlight of every professional's career. When our country is suffering so much these days, it is only our pleasure to put a smile on the faces of so many Israelis today."