(photo credit: Arno Balzarini/Keystone/AP)
After Maccabi Haifa was drawn to play Liverpool in the third qualifying round of the Champions League on Friday, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said that it was "totally unacceptable" to be asked to play in Israel while it fights Hizbullah.
The English Premier League club said that it would make an official protest to UEFA, which said on Thursday that it stands by its April 2004 decision to allow Israeli clubs and the national team to host games in the Tel Aviv area.
Haifa will visit Liverpool for the first leg of the third round of qualifying on August 8 or 9, with the return leg scheduled for August 22-23.
"It's a crazy situation and totally unacceptable to even think about us going over there at this time," Benitez said on the club's official Web site. "There is no way we should be going to Israel to play a game of football at this time. It's crazy to even consider it.
"UEFA cannot put anyone at risk. I feel sad for the people over there at the moment because it's a terrible time for them, but we have to put the security and safety of everyone involved before anything else and that means we cannot travel there."
However, Maccabi Haifa owner Ya'acov Shachar was confident that the second leg will take place in Israel. "I have no doubt that we will host Liverpool in Ramat Gan," he said Saturday. "I'm certain we will fill the stadium and that it will be a great experience."
UEFA is still standing by last week's decision, but would not guarantee the match will definitely take place in Israel. "The situation is changing daily," UEFA spokesman Rob Faulkner said. "We do have a little bit of time.
"The key to this is the safety and security of players, fans, and officials, so we wouldn't make that decision without having those 100 percent assurances, and that is information we are chasing at the moment."
Playing home matches away from Israel would not be a new experience for Haifa, which played its 2002 Champions League group stage home games in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Hapoel Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda could be affected even sooner by any change, as they are scheduled to host UEFA Cup second qualifying round first leg matches on August 10. Hapoel and Bnei Yehuda were drawn Friday to play Domzale of Slovenia and Lokomotiv Sofia, respectively. The return legs will be played on August 24.
Israel's third representative in the UEFA Cup, Betar Jerusalem, will travel Romania to play Dinamo Bucharest in the first leg of their second qualifying round tie, with the return leg set for the National Stadium in Ramat Gan two weeks later.
AC Milan takespart in draw
Also in the 16-club Champions League draw made at UEFA headquarters was AC Milan, which was drawn to play either Ireland's Cork City or Serbia's Red Star Belgrade.
UEFA allowed the six-time champion to take part in the draw after it successfully appealed against punishment it received in Italy's match-fixing scandal that would have barred it from taking part in the Champions League.
However, a final decision on whether the club can play in this year's competition will be made by next Wednesday.
Milan and Italy's national federation will have a chance to argue their case for the club's inclusion while UEFA's emergency panel takes more time to examine the issue.
Arsenal, last year's runner-up, will play either Lithuania's Ekranas or Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia.
Four-time champion Ajax was drawn against either Denmark's FC Copenhagen or Myllykosken Pallo-47 of Finland.
The winners of the third and final qualifying round ties will qualify for the group stage, where they will join 16 teams that have automatically qualified, including champions FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.