Maccabi Haifa will entertain Astra of Romania in the first leg of the Europa
League playoffs at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Thursday night, aiming to record
its fifth-straight clean sheet in continental competition and take a significant
step towards the group stage.
Haifa has impressively yet to concede a
goal in Europe, crushing Xazar Lankaran 10-0 on aggregate in the second
qualifying round before beating FK Ventspils 3-0 in the third
However, Arik Benado’s men are facing a completely different
caliber of opponent on Thursday. Astra currently leads the Romanian league,
claiming its fourth victory in four matches by beating Pandurii Târgu Jiu 3-1
over the weekend.
Pandurii outplayed Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Europa League
third qualifying round, ensuring there is no chance any one at Haifa would even
consider underestimating Astra.
“My team will never be
complacent. How can we take the Romanian league leader lightly?” said
Benado. “If we advance it will give our season a massive boost, but the tie will
only be decided after the second leg.”
Benado seems set to keep faith
with the lineup that easily beat Ventspils two weeks ago, meaning Shimon
Abuhazira and Alon Turgeman will start up front, while Yaniv Katan, Hen Ezra and
Rayo will be in charge of the buildup play in the midfield.
midfielder Gustavo Boccoli will be given the responsibility of thwarting Astra’s
attacks, with the 35- year-old’s career being rejuvenated under
“Romanian teams are always strong, but we know what we need to do
at home,” said Boccoli. “This is an important match for the club and we know
that if we aren’t ready we will be punished.”
Astra coach Daniel Isaila
tried to downplay his side’s chances against Haifa.
“We are happy to be
here, it is a coincidence we have played so well recently,” said Isaila, whose
team overcame Domazle of Slovenia, Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus and Trencin of
Slovakia on its way to the playoffs.
“Haifa is a top quality side and we
will try to disrupt its play. We are determined to record a good result ahead of
the second leg.”
Haifa will be looking to join Maccabi Tel Aviv in the
group stage after the Israeli champion was gifted a berth last week, benefiting
from the consequences of a match-fixing scandal in Ukraine from April
Metalist Kharkiv, which was due to play Schalke 04 in the Champions
League playoff round this week, was kicked out of the competition by UEFA’s
appeals committee after the Ukraine Football Federation found it guilty of
manipulating a match played more than five years ago.
As a result, last
year’s Ukrainian league runner-up was replaced by the opponent Maccabi should
have met in the Europa League playoffs, Greek side PAOK Thessaloniki, the team
Kharkiv beat in the Champions League third qualifying round.
appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over the past week but was
turned down each and every time, allowing Maccabi to begin its preparations for
the group stage, which gets underway on September 19, with the draw to take
place in Monaco on August 30.
Salzburg loses appeal against Champions
League elimination In related news, Austrian side Salzburg has failed in its
attempt to win reinstatement to the Champions League after being eliminated by a
Fenerbahce side which had been banned over match-fixing then provisionally
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has rejected an
application from Salzburg for provisional measures to allow the Austrian club
back into the competition, European soccer’s governing body UEFA said in a
statement on Wednesday.
UEFA banned Fenerbahce for two years in June in
connection with a domestic match-fixing case in 2011.
The Turkish club
appealed to CAS and was re-admitted to the Champions League qualifying
competition pending a final hearing.
Fenerbahce then beat Salzburg 4-2 on
aggregate in the third qualifying round. Salzburg lodged a protest at UEFA which
was dismissed on August 9, followed by an appeal, also at UEFA, which was also
rejected one week later.
The Turkish side faced Arsenal at home on
Wednesday in the first leg of its playoff-round tie hours after CAS began a
two-day hearing into their Fenerbahce’s case in Lausanne.
CAS has said it
will announce the decision on August 28, one day after Fenerbahce visits Arsenal
for the return leg.
Salzburg has not qualified for the Champions League
group stage since a takeover by the Red Bull energy drinks manufacturer in 2005,
despite winning the Austrian Bundesliga four times in that period. Overall,
Salzburg has seven league titles to its name over an 80-year
Reuters contributed to this report