Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Eran Zahavi (right).
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv faces its first true test of 2016/17 earlier than it had hoped in the first leg of the Europa League second qualifying round on Thursday, while Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa both aim to build leads when they host their first legs.
Maccabi arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday following a 10-hour journey which included two stops to refuel the chartered jet.
Its opponent on Thursday, Kairat Almaty, may not have a big reputation, but it has big ambitions, with its squad including the likes of former Arsenal midfielder Andrey Arshavin, Ukraine record cap holder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and former Beitar Jerusalem defender Cesar Arso, with the team having 10 foreign players in total.
Complicating matters even further for Maccabi is the fact Almaty is already in mid-season form, sitting in second place in its local league standings after 20 matches.
The Kazakhs completed a 6-0 aggregate victory over KS Teuta of Albania with a 5-0 win in the second leg of the first qualifying round last week and are targeting a place in the group stage after coming up just short last season.
Almaty knocked out Red Star Belgrade of Serbia and Aberdeen of Scotland in the Europa League qualifiers last season before losing to Bordeaux of France on away goals in the playoff round.
Tel Aviv completed a 4-0 aggregate win over ND Gorica of Slovenia last week with a 1-0 victory on the road, with Yossi Benayoun scoring 10 minutes into his debut.
“It’s always great to score but what’s most important is that we advanced to the next round,” Benayoun told the club’s official website. “I think that Almaty was the toughest team we could’ve have gotten at this stage. They have some good players like Arshavin and Tymoshchuk as well as other quality foreign players. It will be difficult but we have a good team and we believe in ourselves. This will not be an easy battle.”
Midfielder Eyal Golasa could make his debut for Maccabi on Thursday after joining the team last week following two seasons at PAO K Thessaloniki in Greece.
Maccabi is still searching for a new striker following the departure of the prolific Eran Zahavi. With Eliran Atar deciding to remain at Maccabi Haifa, Tel Aviv has set its sights on luring Tomer Hemed back to Israel. Hemed currently plays for Brighton & Hove Albion of the English Championship, but Maccabi is offering a salary in the region of 800,000 euros per season.
After edging Sloboda Tuzla of Bosnia 1-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round last week, Beitar Jerusalem knows it will require a significant improvement to overcome Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus in the second qualifying round.
Omer Atzili scored the only goal of the first round tie in the 66th minute of the second leg at Teddy Stadium and is set to feature once more on Thursday despite being in the midst of arbitration proceedings against the club, demanding to be released.
As last season’s State Cup holder, Haifa only enters the competition in the second qualifying round when it hosts Nomme JK Kalju of Estonia on Thursday. Kalju overcame FK Trakai of Lithuania 5-3 on aggregate with a 4-1 victory in the second leg last week.
Despite ending 2015/16 on a high with the cup triumph, last season was a disappointment for Haifa, which is desperate to get the new campaign off to a fast start in its return to continental competition for the first time since 2013.
“Our goal is to fight for every title this season,” said Haifa defender Dekel Keinan.
“We ended last season on a sweet note by winning the cup, but we had a poor campaign and we know that we have to strengthen the squad in order to challenge for titles this season.”