(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv will not expect to encounter much trouble on its way to the Champions League third qualifying round after being drawn on Monday to face the winner of the firstround tie between Santa Coloma of Andorra and FC Banants of Armenia.
Hapoel Beersheba and Hapoel Tel Aviv will also be confident of safely progressing to the Europa League third qualifying round following the dual draws at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
Beersheba, which will be playing in European competition for the first time since 1998, will come up against either RNK Split of Croatia or FC Mika of Armenia.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will play against the winner of the first-round encounter between FC Pyunik of Armenia and FC Astana of Kazakhstan.
State Cup holder Ironi Kiryat Shmona will enter the Europa League fray in the third qualifying round.
Two-time defending Premier League champion Maccabi Tel Aviv is aiming to reach the Champions League group stage for the second time in club history, and the first since the 2004/05 campaign, after being knocked out in the third qualifying round by FC Basel last season.
The yellow-and-blue went on to reach the round-of-32 of the Europa League, where it was sent packing by Basel once more, with the Swiss champion also taking Maccabi’s coach in the off-season, acquiring the services of Paulo Sousa.
Spanish coach Oscar Garcia returned to Maccabi after one year in England and he can’t wait for his first match back at Bloomfield Stadium, which will be the first leg of the second qualifying round in three weeks, on July 15/16, with the return leg to be played a week later.
“As all our opponents are champions every draw is far from easy and is a tough tie,” Oscar told Maccabi’s official website. “We will need to be at our best in order to qualify and with the first leg at home it will give us an opportunity to see our fans fill Bloomfield in three weeks’ time.”
Unlike last season, Maccabi will also be seeded in the third qualifying round, which should ensure the team will be handed an easier opponent than Basel.
Beersheba’s last appearance in continental competition was in the now-extinct Cup Winners Cup in the 1997/98 season, with its most memorable European experience coming in 1995 when it lost 12-0 on aggregate to Barcelona in the UEFA Cup.
Beersheba is hoping to build on last season’s surprise success when it finished as runner-up to Maccabi and reached the cup semifinals. The club has maintained the core of the side from last season and has so far signed one player, Israeli striker Shlomi Arbeitman, who returns home after four years in Belgium.
“We had a wonderful year by any standard last season and we are hoping to record as good a season in 2014/15,” said Beersheba coach Elisha Levy. “ We have a very strong foundation and we are working very hard to strengthen the team. We must remember that two years ago this team was almost relegated and that last year it made a giant leap forward. There are a lot of expectations from us, but we will know how to handle them.”
Beersheba captain Elyaniv Barda echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“Our goal is to be among the top teams every year and this season will be a very big test for us,” said Barda. “It won’t be easy to emulate what we did last year, but if we want to be a top club we will have to do so.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv is still licking its wounds after being stunned in the third qualifying round of the Europa League last season, costing it millions of shekels and resulting in a debt that is still hampering the club to this day.
New manager Eyal Berkovic has spent recent weeks trying to reduce the club’s deficit by renegotiating financial terms with the team’s stars.
He has registered some success, with playmaker Gili Vermut agreeing to a new five-year deal last week.
Another solution to Hapoel’s financial struggles would be a lengthy European run.
Tel Aviv and Beersheba host their first legs on July 17, with the second legs to be played the following week.