B'nei Yehuda striker Mavis Tchibota.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv hopes to take advantage of the absence of Panionios’s two Iranian players when it hosts the Greek team in the first leg of the Europa League third qualifying round in Netanya on Thursday.
Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi didn’t travel with the team to Israel, keeping with a long Iranian tradition by which its athletes refuse to compete against Israelis.
Maccabi is aiming to advance through four qualifying rounds for a second straight season, completing a 5-1 aggregate victory over KR Reykjavik in the second qualifying round with a 2-0 win in Iceland last week.
Bnei Yehuda will also be in action, but enters its third qualifying round tie with far fewer expectations, hosting Russian powerhouse Zenit St. Petersburg in the first leg in Petah Tikva on Thursday.
Maccabi was far from convincing in the first two qualifying rounds, but had little trouble advancing and coach Jordi Cruyff is hoping for an improved performance as well as a positive result on Thursday.
“We can’t think we are the favorites. That would be a big mistake,” said Cruyff. “The Greek league is decent and their coefficient shows that. We have to play this game as seriously as we can. I do think that the team is improving and we will for sure give 100 percent.”
Cruyff preferred not to address the absence of the Iranians.
“It’s not a problem that I have to suffer with. I don’t know how they manage these situations and I am not planning on getting into politics,” said Cruyff, who noted the club is still searching for new foreign recruits.
“We all wish that it will go quicker and faster but the most important thing is to get the right players,” added Cruyff.
“Clubs don’t like to lose good players and we are trying to find good players.”
Bnei Yehuda, which qualified for Europe after surprising Maccabi Tel Aviv in last season’s State Cup final, completed a 3-1 aggregate victory over Trencin of Slovakia last week, winning 2-0 in the second leg in Petah Tikva.
St. Petersburg, coached by Italian Roberto Mancini, has spent 44 million euro on strengthening its squad this summer, hoping to improve on last season’s disappointing third-place finish in the Russian league. Zenit has reached the knockout rounds of either the Champions League or Europa League in each of the past six seasons.
“At the start of the season all the games are difficult,” said Mancini. “We need to play a good game if we want to win.”On TV: Europa League third qualifying round, first leg: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Panionios (live on Sport 1 at 7:45 p.m.); Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St. Petersburg (live on Sport 2 at 8:30 p.m.)