hapoel tel aviv fans 298.
(photo credit: AP)
It may be just the third qualifying round of the Europa League, but Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Netanya will each have to be at their very best on Thursday night if their respective continental campaigns are to extend beyond the first week of August.
Hapoel visits two-time UEFA Cup winner (1982, 1987) and strong Swedish side IFK GÃ¶teborg in the first leg of the penultimate qualifying round for the competition's group stage, with Netanya hosting another former UEFA Cup winner (2000) in the form of Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray SK at Bloomfield Stadium.
As last season's Premier League runner-up, Tel Aviv received a bye until the third qualifying round, meaning Thursday's match will be the team's first overall of the season.
GÃ¶teborg, on the other hand, is already midway through its local season, a fact which Tel Aviv coach Eli Gutman feels may greatly benefit the hosts.
"GÃ¶teborg's big advantage is that it is already 16 matches into its Swedish league campaign," Gutman said.
"We have learned all about GÃ¶teborg and its players. Hapoel has a long European tradition and we are compelled to live up to it. We will know how to get the job done in Sweden and it is important to remember our eventual goal is to be the winner over the two legs."
New signings Dedi Ben-Dayan and Michael Zandberg are expected to make their debuts for Hapoel, with striker Itai Shechter to start on the bench and perhaps make his first appearance for the club as a substitute.
GÃ¶teborg dropped to second in the Swedish standings over the weekend after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Trelleborgs FF.
Nevertheless, considering the Swedes' excellent start to the season and superior fitness, Hapoel will be entering Thursday's match as an underdog and will be very pleased to return to Israel with a draw.
"We are expecting a very tough match against a good team," captain Walid Badier said. "We were handed a very difficult draw. GÃ¶teborg led the Swedish league until this past weekend while we haven't even started our Premier League campaign.
"Regardless, we are aiming to end the match in a draw at the very least. We have an excellent team and we are not intending to lose."
Netanya faces an even stiffer challenge Thursday against Galatasaray.
Guided this season by Dutch legend and former Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard, Galatasaray struggled in the Turkish league last year, finishing in a disappointing fifth place.
However, the former Champions League regular has splashed out in the transfer market this summer, with the highlight being the 8.5-million euro transfer of striker Abdul Kader Keita from Lyon.
Galatasaray possess a supremely impressive squad, which includes former Liverpool players Harry Kewell and Milan Baros, as well as Swede Tobias Linderoth, striker Shabani Nonda and numerous Turkish internationals.
Keita's transfer fee alone is three times the size of Netanya's entire budget for the upcoming season and coach Nati Azariya was hopeful a little biblical inspiration can help his team record a shock result.
"This match is a bit like David against Goliath," said Azariya, who led his team to a 3-0 aggregate victory over Malta's Sliema Wanderers in the second qualifying round.
"We will be brave and determined and we hope to slay the giant. I'm a young coach and it is an honor for me to face someone like Rijkaard. We will be giving our best and we fear no one. They have superior talent but we also have our weapons."
Rijkaard, meanwhile, was wary of the threat posed by Netanya.
"Obviously we are the bigger team and on paper we should win the match. But past experience shows us that these types of matches are always difficult and the smaller team is always the more focused," Rijkaard said.
Bnei Yehuda got Israeli participation in the third qualifying round off to a successful start on Tuesday, defeating FC PaÃ§os de Ferreira of Portugal 1-0 at Bloomfield Stadium.
All three second legs will be played next Thursday.