maccabi haifa 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa face two different challenges on Thursday night when they play their decisive second-leg matches in the first round of the UEFA Cup.
Hapoel hosts Chornomorets Odessa of Ukraine at Tel Aviv's Bloomfield Stadium, which will be the first international soccer match to be held in Israel since UEFA lifted its ban.
Tel Aviv defeated Odessa 1-0 in the first leg two weeks ago and is extremely confident of becoming the second Israeli club ever to reach the group stage of the UEFA Cup.
Unlike Hapoel, Haifa suffered a setback in the first leg and faces a much more difficult task if it is to advance. Maccabi drew 1-1 with Litex Lovech of Bulgaria in its "home" tie in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and will need a highscoring draw or a win in Bulgaria to prolong its European season.
Hapoel coach Yitzhak Schum is only 90 minutes away from taking an Israeli team to the group stage of a European competition for a second time. Schum helped Maccabi Haifa to the group stage of the Champions League in the 2002/03 season and his expertise has put him on the brink of another Continental success.
"This is a very important match because when it's over, nothing more can be done," Schum said at a press conference on Wednesday.
The coach tried to warn against complacency. "We are playing against a team and not against thin air," he said. "On a given day, anything can happen. All the players are healthy and are ready for the match."
The Odessa club arrived in Israel without coach Semen Altman, who stayed in Ukraine because of an illness, but with former Haifa defender Andrei Ostrovskiy.
"Despite our loss in the first leg, I think Odessa has a good chance," an optimistic Ostrovskiy said after landing. "We are without our coach and that will affect us, but nevertheless we will do all we can to win."
There was also plenty of optimism on Wednesday at Ostrovskiy's former team, with coach Roni Levy especially in a confident mood. "I think we are a better team and I think we should win," Levy declared at a press conference on Wednesday. "I believe we will be victorious and the most important thing is that we score one more goal than our opponents."
Levy will have almost a full squad to choose from as only forward Yaniv Katan is doubtful for the match. "Katan has very strong stomach pains, but he does not want to miss this match," the coach said of Haifa's goal-scorer in the first leg. "He will decide whether he will play or not.
"He is the team's captain and is in outstanding form. We hope he will play."
Veteran Haifa defender Alon Harazi, who has experienced the highs and the lows of European soccer with Maccabi, was very clear on Wednesday about the significance of the match against Lovech. "This is one of Haifa's most important games in recent years," Harazi stressed.
"We have a very clear goal - to reach the group stage. Anything else will be a big disappointment."
Field to be cut down to 40
The UEFA Cup field of 80 teams - many familiar only to their own fans - will become a bit easier to understand after Thursday's matches.
The 40 first-round, second-leg matches will cut the field in half.
The group stage of the UEFA Cup is comprised of eight groups of five teams, with each side playing four games.
Only a few big-name teams are involved in the UEFA Cup, once a major tournament which has been badly hit by the expansion of the more popular and lucrative Champions League.
Two-time UEFA Cup champion Tottenham hosts Sparta Prague and holds a 1-0 advantage from the first leg - one of only two matches it has managed to score in this season. Tottenham has failed to find the net in five of its six English Premier League games.
Ajax, four-time champion in Europe's more prestigious competition, is the biggest club in the field. The Dutch club has a 5-2 lead over Norway's IK Start going into the second leg in the Netherlands.
What the UEFA Cup lacks in quality, it makes up for in controversy.
West Ham's game in Palermo could be interesting with Palermo leading 1-0.
English fans at the first leg two weeks ago in London wore shirts that read: "The Hammers vs. the Mafia." To counteract the bad publicity, Sicily's governor Salvatore Cuffaro is handing out T-shirts that read in Italian: "The Mafia is disgusting" and "Freedom is our thing."
AP contributed to this report.
On TV: Hapoel Tel Aviv vs FC Chornomorets Odesa (live at 7:30 p.m. on Sport5+; tape delay 11:55 p.m.-1:40 a.m. on Sport5); Litex Lovech vs Maccabi Haifa (live at 8:45 p.m. on Channel 10); Palermo vs West Ham (live at 9:40 p.m. on Sport5).