Having earned an impressive away win in Moscow earlier this season, Tony Mowbray got a taste of the disappointment that Celtic supporters are already familiar with, as two late goals saw his side beaten in Israel.
Celtic had initially taken the lead through Georgios Samaras, but with Hapoel Tel-Aviv piling on the pressure in the second half, Nemanja Vucicevic leveled and Maaran Lala grabbed the winner with just two minutes to go.
The manager had brought back club captain Stephen McManus for his first game of the season and moved Gary Caldwell into a five-man midfield with Samaras as the lone striker.
The game itself was unusual in the sense that it was the club’s first match in newly-established UEFA Europa League, and featuring UEFA’s latest experiment of two additional officials behind the goal.
The match started with a chance for the home side as Gil Vermouth swung in a cross that landed on the head of Bebars Natcho at the back post. The ball dropped over the head of Danny Fox, giving the midfielder little time to direct his header and he sent it spinning over the bar.
This was an early warning for Celtic and Hapoel looked good in the opening stages, penning Mowbray’s men back and testing the defense with a number of probing passes.
However, when Celtic did break forward and win a corner, Samaras forced a great save from Vincent Enyeama with a powerful header which was touched onto the crossbar. But moments later Hapoel were again tearing forward on the counter.
This time it was Vucicevic who broke forward, wrong-footing Fox and cutting back before forcing a great one-handed stop from Artur Boruc.
Then suddenly and against the run of play, Celtic took the lead in spectacular fashion. Collecting the ball in space on the edge of the box, Samaras turned and had time to look up before firing the ball into the far corner.
After this opener Celtic took control, keeping possession and frustrating their opponents, who succeeded in creating just one more chance, a long-range effort from Dedi Ben Dayan, which Boruc punched over the bar.
As half time approached there was a moment of controversy involving referee Paul Allaerts, whose inaction almost caused tempers to boil over. Having allowed two blatant, cynical fouls on Aiden McGeady to pass without comment, he finally acted when the winger was chopped down again by Ben Dayan. He then booked both players as they angrily squared up.
Hapoel started the second half strongly, pushing forward with Vermouth breaking through from the midfield and forcing a brilliant save from Boruc. There were also two penalty claims which the referee did well to dismiss, booking Natcho for diving.
This incensed the home support, but the game gradually began to calm down and although they were failing to create chances, Celtic defended well and stayed strong, with Hapoel bringing on an extra striker in their pursuit of the equalizer.
Then, with four men up front and the pressure escalating, Hapoel leveled through Vucicevic. Boruc initially blocked a ball across the edge of the six-yard box with his boot, but the Serbian midfielder raced through unmarked and rifled the ball into the roof of the net.
Celtic had to weather the storm in the closing stages, with the players drained by the sweltering heat and Hapoel on the front foot. Boruc was again a central player, making two great saves and covering his post when Eran Zehavi fired wide.
Then, with two minutes to go, disaster struck when substitute Lala raced into the box and bundled home Vermouth’s cutback. It was a heartbreaking end to the opening group game of this season’s UEFA Europa League.
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