Hapoel Beersheba’s Maor Melikson.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv will find out how difficult life can be in the Europa League when they face the strongest opponents in their respective groups in Thursday night’s openers.
Beersheba registers the latest highlight in its remarkable rise when it plays in one of the continent’s biggest and most famous stadiums, visiting Inter Milan at the San Siro.
Maccabi hosts Zenit Saint Petersburg in Netanya earlier Thursday.
Beersheba was placed in Group K together with Inter, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Southampton of the English Premier League after being knocked out by Celtic in the Champions League playoffs.
Beersheba, which climbed to first place in the Premier League standings with Saturday’s 3-0 win over Bnei Sakhnin, is playing in the group stage of a continental competition for the first time in its history. It hadn’t won a European tie in 19 years until this summer.
Despite the team’s lack of experience in Europe, Beersheba coach Barak Bachar is not lacking in confidence ahead of the trip to Italy.
“We will try to win in San Siro. There is always a chance,” he said after Beersheba beat Sakhnin.
Around 1,000 Beersheba fans are expected at San Siro, but captain Elyaniv Barda missed the trip through injury.
Midfielder Maor Melikson, who has been out of action for the past three weeks since suffering a groin strain against Celtic in the second leg of the Champions League playoffs, has returned to training, but remains a doubt for Thursday.
Regardless, winger Maor Buzaglo is set to continue in the starting 11 and he is optimistic Beersheba can register a positive result in Italy.
“As a child I went to see the Milan derby and it was an amazing experience,” said Buzaglo. “It will be even more fun to actually be on the pitch and I’m certain we can get something out of this match. We will give the great Inter a fight and if we remain tactically disciplined we will have a chance.”
Since winning a fifth straight Serie A championship and the Champions League title in 2010, Inter has been on a steady decline.
The Nerazzurri haven’t finished higher than fourth place in the past five seasons, last playing in the Champions League in 2011/12.
Dutchman Frank De Boer replaced Roberto Mancini this summer, with Inter beating Pescara 2-1 on Sunday for its first win of the season in what was its third match of the league campaign.
Both Beersheba and Maccabi are guaranteed 5.4 million euro from UEFA prize money alone for reaching the group stage, with additional sums to enter their bank accounts via TV rights and ticket sales. A win in the Europa League is worth 360,000 euro from UEFA, with a draw to result in a 120,000 euro bonus.
Besides Zenit, Maccabi Tel Aviv was drawn in Group D with AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands and Dundalk of Ireland.
Maccabi enters Thursday’s match on the back of a heartbreaking 2-2 draw against Beitar Jerusalem, conceding an equalizer with the last touch of Sunday’s game in the fourth minute of stoppage time, ending the yellow-and-blue’s perfect start to the league campaign.
Zenit played in the Champions League in the past five years, but had to settle for a place in the Europa League after finishing in third place in the Russian league last season.
“This is like a Champions League game,” said Maccabi coach Shota Arveladze. “Zenit has been at the top and they are a quality side. This will be a good challenge for us and we are looking forward to it.”