Six months after suffering heartbreak at the hands of FC Basel, Maccabi Tel Aviv is confident it can gain a measure of revenge when it hosts the Swiss champion in the Europa League round-of-32 first leg at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night.
Basel knocked out Maccabi in the Champions League third qualifying round last August, claiming a 4-3 victory on aggregate. Basel won the first leg in Switzerland 1-0 before racing to a 3-0 lead at Bloomfield after 32 minutes.
Maccabi regained some pride by coming back to draw 3-3, but was still two goals shy of overhauling the deficit from the first leg and was relegated to the Europa League.
Maccabi became the fourth Israeli team to reach the knockout rounds of the Europa League or UEFA Cup after ending Group F in second place with 11 points, joining the Hapoel Tel Aviv teams of 2006/07 and 2009/10 and Maccabi Haifa in 2006/07.
The yellow-and-blue has also been in dominant form in the Premier League, winning 18 of 22 matches to date to establish a six-point gap over Hapoel Beersheba.
Basel, however, is an opponent of a completely different caliber to the ones Maccabi faces in local action. Basel holds a five-point margin at the top of its local standings and only missed out on a place in the Champions League round-of-16 in its final group encounter.
Basel beat English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea both home and away in the Champions League group stage, but picked up just two more points from its four matches versus Schalke 04 and Steaua Bucharest and was sent to the Europa League after finishing Group E in third place following a 2-0 defeat to Schalke.
However, Maccabi can draw some encouragement from the fact that Basel sold its star midfielder in the January transfer window and will be missing three more key players on Thursday due to injury and suspension.
Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah caused a stir last year after saying he would never play against a Zionist team.
He ended up being in Basel’s starting lineup in both legs against Maccabi, scoring a goal at Bloomfield.
He has since moved to Chelsea for a transfer fee estimated at £11 million and his former team will also have to manage on Thursday without captain Marco Streller, who was ruled out through injury.
Basel’s defense will also be without two significant starters, with Fabian Schar suspended and Ivan Ivanov out until the end of the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last month.
“A club like Basel has a squad rich with players. They sold Salah for a sum which is more than the value of our entire squad so we must be realistic regarding the differences between the clubs,” said Maccabi coach Paulo Sousa. “They are the favorites, but we believe we can qualify.”
Sousa is expecting a very different tie to the one the teams played last August.
“That was the beginning of the season and today my players are richer tactically and they understand the game better and make better decisions,” Sousa explained.
“Basel plays with a different system now and also has the second leg to look forward to at home. I think the great advantage for us is that we have already made history by qualifying. I hope we can surprise them and get the result we are looking for.”
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