Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Vidar Orn Kjartansson has scored two goals in Europa League qualifying to date and warmed up for tonight’s first leg of the playoffs against Altach in Austria by netting a hat-trick in last week’s Toto Cup win over Maccabi Petah Tikva..
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
After winning all six of its Europa League qualifiers to date by a combined goal difference of 12-1, Maccabi Tel Aviv enters Thursday’s playoff first leg against Altach in Austria knowing that a seventh straight victory would be a major step on the way to another extended continental campaign.
Maccabi is aiming to participate in the group stage of a European competition for a third straight season, reaching the Champions League groups in 2015/16 before qualifying for the Europa groups last year.
For a second straight season it began its campaign in the first qualifying round, and despite displaying mediocre form to date, it has won all six of its matches against Tirana of Albania, KR of Iceland and Panionios of Greece.
Standing in the way of the yellow-and blue and another season in the Europa groups is Altach, which hosts the first leg on Thursday. The second leg will be played in Netanya next Thursday.
Altach finished in fourth place in the Austrian league last season and surprised Gent of Belgium in the third qualifying round.
“I don’t think that we are the favorites and I believe that the sides are equal,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff on Wednesday.
“Altach was able to advance over Gent and should be proud of that as they are a quality side. We respect our opponent and we will have to battle to advance. We are hoping to take a step towards the group stages but Altach has shown that they have plenty to offer. We know what to expect and we are ready for a difficult opponent.”
Cruyff said his team will be targeting a win even though it still has a second leg to look forward to in Israel.
“We respect everyone and we always try to play our football. It would be a mistake to play differently,” he explained.
“We know that in Europe it’s important to get a good result in the first leg but our goal is to always win. That is the mentality of the club and that’s what’s expected of us. We will try to play our game, good football and control the ball. If that’s not possible we will be organized and most importantly we will come in with the mentality to win.”
Maccabi has so far made four significant signings this summer, the latest of which being the addition of Tino-Sven Susic, who joined on loan last week and could make his European debut for the club on Thursday.
The 25-year-old Bosnia international joined on a one-year loan deal from Belgian club Genk. Maccabi still intends to make at least two more signings before the end of the transfer window, with negotiations with Maccabi Haifa regarding the transfer of striker Eliran Atar still ongoing.
“This is my sixth season at Maccabi and I have experience as to where we are right now,” noted Cruyff. “We lost a number of players this past summer but we are building a new squad and we will try to play good football. We have been able to get to the group stages over the past few seasons and that is one of our goals. I expect that the match tomorrow will be tough, but a club that wants to play in the group stages must get by some difficult matches.”
Unlike Maccabi, which only begins its local league campaign this coming Sunday, Altach is already well into its season. It may well have wished that was not the case as it has lost its past three Austrian league contests.
“I believe that both clubs are in good shape and if we are in the Europa League playoffs that means we’ve already played a number of matches,” said Maccabi defender Avi Rikan. “I don’t think that we are at a disadvantage since our league hasn’t started. This is going to be a tough match for both sides.”On TV: Europa League Playoff, first leg: Altach vs Maccabi Tel Aviv (live on Sport 1 at 9:30 p.m.)