(photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
Hapoel Beersheba’s Champions League dream is a little closer to becoming a reality after it avoided the big names in the playoffs, being paired with Slovenian champion NK Maribor in Friday’s draw.
Beersheba wasn’t seeded in the draw and perennial Greek champion Olympiacos and Scottish giant Celtic were among its potential opponents. The two-time reigning Israeli champion will like its chances far more against Maribor, which failed to reach a group stage in European competition in the last two seasons.
Maribor, which overcame Zrinjski of Bosnia and FH of Iceland to reach the playoffs, qualified for the Champions League groups in 2014/15 in what was its second ever appearance in the prestigious stage.
“Any team that has made it to this stage deserves to be here,” said Beersheba coach Barak Bachar. “If we want to realize our dreams and goals we need to make sure we are extremely focused in both matches. We will need to methodically study Maribor and everyone on our team will need to give his all.”
Beersheba hosts the first leg at Turner Stadium on August 16, with the second leg to be played in Slovenia on August 22.
Beersheba defeated Honved of Hungary in the second qualifying round before scrapping through to the playoffs by the skin of its teeth last week.
Beersheba players and fans breathed a huge sigh of relief at the final whistle in Razgard, Bulgaria last Wednesday after losing 3-1 to Ludogorets, but holding on for a 3-3 tie on aggregate which sent Hapoel through on away goals. Beersheba claimed a 2-0 win in the first leg.
Regardless of the outcome of its playoff tie, Beersheba has already guaranteed itself continental play deep into the winter. The 10 teams to lose in the Champions League playoffs will be handed a berth in the Europa League group stage.
Beersheba has also already secured itself a big pay day of around 5.6 million euro from UEFA prize money alone. That sum will more than double should it go on to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
Beersheba is looking to become the fourth Israeli club to play in the Champions League group stage. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the last to do so in 2015/16, also reaching the group stage in 2004/05. Hapoel Tel Aviv qualified for the prestigious stage in 2010/11 and Maccabi Haifa has done so twice in the past (2002/03, 2009/10).
Maccabi Tel Aviv is aiming to advance to the group stage of a continental competition for a third straight season, being drawn on Friday to face Altach of Austria in the Europa League playoffs.
Maccabi, which is looking to come through four qualifying rounds for a second consecutive year, made it six wins in a row to start the season with a 1-0 victory against Panionios in Greece on Thursday, completing a 2-0 aggregate triumph.
Altach finished in fourth place in the Austrian league last season and surprised Gent of Belgium in the third qualifying round.
“Every team which reaches the playoff stage is a respectable opponent and Altach is no exception having finished fourth in the Austrian league and managed to knockout Gent in the previous round with a draw away and a victory at home,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff. “We won all six of our qualifiers so far and despite playing each time at home first, the fact we are playing the return leg at home in front of our fans in the playoffs is always encouraging.”
Maccabi visits Austria for the first leg on August 17, with the return leg to take place in Netanya a week later.
Elsewhere in the Champions League playoffs, Napoli will have to overcome French side Nice if it is to end Italy’s dismal record in the playoff round.
Serie A teams have been beaten in the playoff round for the last three seasons and six times in the last eight with Napoli among the victims in 2014 when it lost to Athletic Bilbao.
Napoli, which finished third in Serie A last season and reached the round of 16 in the Champions League, will play the first leg at home.
Nice, which is spearheaded by maverick Italian striker Mario Balotelli, has never reached the group stage although it qualified for the old European Cup in 1956 and 1959.
English Premier League side Liverpool was also handed a tough draw against Bundesliga outfit Hoffenheim, another team aiming to reach the lucrative group stage for the first time. The Germans will be at home in the first leg.
Sevilla faces Istanbul Basaksehir while CSKA Moscow meets Swiss side Young Boys and Portugal’s Sporting takes on FCSB, which was formerly known as Steaua Bucharest and won the old European Cup in 1986.
Scottish champion Celtic, also a former European champion, will have to make the long journey to Kazakhstan for the return leg of its tie after a draw against FC Astana.
Reuters contributed to this report