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 round.

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.

Defensive midfielder Gustavo Boccoli will be given the responsibility of thwarting Astra’s attacks, with the 35- year-old’s career being rejuvenated under Benado.

“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 2008.

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.

Metalist 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 reprieved.

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 history.

Reuters contributed to this report


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