After a poor performance against Santa Coloma and without home-field advantage in the return leg, Maccabi Tel Aviv enters Wednesday’s Champions League third qualifying round first leg against NK Maribor knowing it can’t afford to slip up in Slovenia.
Maccabi recorded a 3-0 aggregate victory over Andorran champion Santa Coloma in the second qualifying round, but it will have to register a significant improvement against a far stronger Maribor side.
Maccabi coach Oscar Garcia is expected to start with a similar lineup to the ones he used against Santa Coloma, although his squad received a massive boost earlier this week with the signings of Israel national team striker Eden Ben-Basat from French side FC Toulouse and Nigerian midfielder Nosa Igiebor from Spanish outfit Real Betis.
The two could make their debuts on Wednesday and are set to significantly strengthen Maccabi’s attacking options, with the 27-year-old Ben-Basat scoring 21 goals for Brest and Toulouse in 90 league and cup appearances in France since leaving Israel in 2011, while the 23-year-old Igiebor returns to Israel after two seasons in Seville, previously spending one year at Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“We’re headed for Slovenia to beat Maribor and play our absolute best,” said Ben-Basat. “It will be very difficult, but I believe we can get a good result. Everyone knows how difficult things are for all of us here right now, even the footballers outside Israel, but when it comes to personal security, there’s no place like Israel and I’m very happy to be back.”
Regarding his decision to return to Israel, Ben-Basat added: “It was a professional decision, I’m very happy to join the Maccabi family and now it’s up to me to prove myself. I gave the matter some thought but as soon as you get here to the training complex and watch the level of play at practices you can see that it’s comparable with many places in Europe. I had some options in France but I decided that Maccabi Tel Aviv is the best place for me at this point in my career.”
Progress to the playoff round of the Champions League will be crucial to Maccabi, and not only because it will leave the yellow-and-blue within touching distance of the group stage. A win in the third qualifying round will also ensure that Maccabi will be guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stage, even should it fall in the next round.
“We can look Maccabi in the eye,” said Maribor defender and former Hapoel Tel Aviv player, Marko Suler.
“This won’t be an easy match, but we are certainly capable of winning it.”
Israeli midfielder Sintayehu Sallalich is also a member of the Maribor squad, which reached the third qualifying round with a 2-0 aggregate triumph over Zrinjski of Bosnia.
“It’s a dream for everyone to play in the Champions League so for me this was one of my priorities, to come to play in the Champions League,” said Igiebor. “And I know that Maccabi has the quality of players that can play on the big stage, so this is my number one priority.”