(photo credit: INIMAGE)
Despite having to host its home leg over 150 kilometers away from its actual stadium, and the fact less than 1,000 tickets have been sold for the match, Ironi Kiryat Shmona is optimistic of advancing to the Europa League playoffs on Thursday night.
With its stadium not meeting UEFA standards, Kiryat Shmona welcomes Slovan Liberec of the Czech Republic in Netanya, knowing a 1-0 win will be enough to send it through to the final playoff round after losing 2-1 on the road in the first leg last week.
Ahmed Abed’s 89th-minute strike may not have saved Kiryat Shmona from defeat, but it completely changed the complexity of Thursday’s return leg.
Dzon Delarge gave Liberec the lead two minutes from the halftime break and the Czechs looked to be heading towards a comfortable first-leg cushion after Herolind Shala doubled the advantage in the 84th minute, making the most of a mistake by Israeli goalkeeper Guy Haimov.
However, Abed’s goal means Kiryat Shmona has every reason to believe it can progress to the playoff round on Thursday and close in on a place in the group stage.
Kiryat Shmona is playing in Europe for the third time in four seasons, with its best showing to date coming in 2012/13 when it reached the group stage of the Europa League after being knocked out in the Champions League playoffs.
Liberec won the Czech cup last season and is aiming to qualify for the group stage of the Europa League for the second time in three years.
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Kiryat Shmona rested almost all of its starters in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Hapoel Acre in their Toto Cup opener, with coach Salah Hasarma wanting to make sure he would have his strongest lineup available for the second leg against Liberec.
“We decided to rest some players because they were tired from the flights back home and we wanted to make sure they would be ready for Thursday,” said Hasarma, who is the first Israeli-Arab to coach a top-flight club under Jewish ownership.
“We have a good team which is heading in the right direction, but the most important thing at the moment is that we overcome Liberec.”
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