(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Hapoel Beersheba can take a huge step towards a historic qualification to the knockout rounds of the Europa League should it beat Sparta Prague at Turner Stadium on Thursday night, while Maccabi Tel Aviv’s hopes of progressing will be all but lost should it fail to defeat AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands.
Beersheba happily settled for a 0-0 draw against Southampton of the English Premier League in its previous Europa match, building on its 2-0 win at Inter Milan in their Group K opener.
Southampton leads Group K with four points and a 3-0 goal difference, while Beersheba has four points and a 2-0 goal difference. Prague has three points, with Inter still without a point.
The top two teams in the group will advance to the last-32.
Beersheba visits Prague in two weeks before hosting Inter on November 24.
The reigning Israeli champion wraps up its group campaign with a visit to Southampton on December 8.
Beersheba warmed up for the clash with Sparta with a 5-0 thrashing of Maccabi Petah Tikva in a postponed Premier League match on Saturday.
Prague beat Vysocina Jihlava 3-0 in local league action on Sunday, but traveled to Israel with plenty of problems.
The team is currently guided by interim coach David Holoubek following the sacking of Zdenek Scasny last month and enters Thursday’s match without at least 10 of its squad members.
Former Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky is among those who are out injured, with Sparta also already having one eye on next Sunday’s league clash with Czech champion Viktoria Plzen.
“We are facing two important matches against Beersheba and Plzen, but I feel that our league game is of greater importance,” said Holoubek.
“We will need to come through Thursday and then focus on Sunday. We have many injuries and need to work out how to use the players we have during this hectic stretch.”
Later Thursday, Maccabi Tel Aviv goes in search of its first points in Group D.
Maccabi was left with plenty to mull over after falling 1-0 to Irish team Dundalk in Dublin in its last group match, which was also its last game in any competition some three weeks ago.
The yellow-and-blue suffered a 4-3 loss to Zenit Saint Petersburg in their opener in Netanya despite leading 3-0 until the 77th minute.
AZ hasn’t fared much better, drawing 1-1 at home against Dundalk before being crushed 5-0 by Zenit in Russia.
Zenit already looks to be well on course for a place in the next stage, with its next two matches being against Dundalk, leaving Maccabi, AZ and Dundalk to battle for the second ticket to the round-of-32.
Maccabi midfielder Haris Medunjanin and coach Shota Arveladze know all about Alkmaar, with the former starting his professional career with AZ, representing the club from 2004-08, during which time he was a teammate of the latter.
They will be putting their fond memories from their time at the club to one side on Thursday, with Maccabi in desperate need of the points.
“There’s no question that this wasn’t the way we wanted to open up our European campaign but we know that we can compete and we will do our best to play well in Alkmaar and take some points,” said defender Eitan Tibi.
“Alkmaar also wants to take points from this game because the third match is very critical in the competition. Both teams will look to win and hopefully we will find ourselves on top.”