Greens, Reds get decent luck in group draw, not Mac TA

Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will have every chance of advancing to the knockout stages of the Europa League.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will have every chance of advancing to the knockout stages of the Europa League, while Maccabi Tel Aviv will be hoping to avoid last place in its group following Friday’s draw for the competition’s group stage in Monaco.
For the first time ever, Israel has three representatives in the group stages of soccer’s continental competitions after Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv clinched their Europa League playoff ties on Thursday night, while Haifa was granted its berth following its exit to KRC Genk in the Champions League playoffs last week.
Haifa was placed in Group J with Schalke 04 of Germany, Roni Levy’s Steaua Bucharest and AEK Larnaca of Cyprus, and although the Germans are the clear favorites to win the group, the Greens will be confident of battling it out for second place, which also ensures progress to the round of 32.
Hapoel will face Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven, Rapid Bucharest and Legia Warsaw in Group C, while Maccabi Tel Aviv will play Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas JK of Turkey and Stoke City in Group E.
Group games will be played from September 15 until December 15, with the top two teams in each group to be joined in the knockout phase by the third-placed finishers in the Champions League groups.
“Schalke is a strong and attractive team and Steaua is also good and is especially interesting because Roni Levy will be coming back to Haifa,” Greens coach Elisha Levy said.
“I hope we can host our matches at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium and we are making great efforts so that will be the case.
We will be fighting Steaua for second position, but it is never easy at this stage of the competition.”
Schalke, which faced Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Champions League last season before falling to Manchester United in the semifinals, has lost goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to Bayern Munich, but it still holds a deep and impressive squad, and despite only ending last season in 14th position, is playing in Europe once more by virtue of winning the German cup.
Roni Levy joined Steaua earlier this summer and guided it to the Europa League group stage with a 3-1 aggregate win over CSKA Sofia, drawing 1-1 on the road on Thursday.
Larnaca, coached by former Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv boss Ton Caanen, reached the group stage of a European competition for the first time in its history thanks to Thursday’s 2-1 win over Norway’s Rosenborg following a 0-0 draw on the road.
“I had a feeling I would face an Israeli team and it’s amazing it actually happened,” said Levy, who coached Haifa for five seasons, leading it to three straight championships (2004-2006).
“At least I won’t need any scouting services.”
Hapoel thrashed Lithuanian champion FK Ekranas 4-0 at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday to complete a 4-1 aggregate victory and will be optimistic of making it through to the knockout stages for the second time in three years after losing to Rubin Kazan in the round of 32 in 2009/10.
“We got a reasonable draw, although there are no easy games in the group stage of the Europa League,” midfielder Salim Toama said. “We had a wonderful European campaign with Dror Kashtan 10 years ago when we reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup and I hope we can repeat that this season.”
Eindhoven only finished third in local league play in 2010/11, but the Dutch powerhouse is always dangerous, reaching the quarterfinals of the Europa League last season.
Rapid Bucharest made the group stage with a 4-2 aggregate win over Slask Wroclaw of Poland, while Legia Warsaw, for which Israeli Moshe Ohayon plays, did so by coming back from two goals down to stun Spartak Moscow 3-2 on the road for a 5-4 aggregate win.
Maccabi Tel Aviv would have loved to swap places with its arch-rival after discovering its prize for knocking out Panathinaikos in the playoffs, winning 4-2 on aggregate after a 2-1 loss in Athens on Thursday.
The yellow-and-blue faces an uphill battle against all three of its opponents.
Dynamo Kiev, led by striker Andriy Shevchenko, has lost out to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukrainian league in recent seasons, but it is still an ominous opponent.
Heavy-spending Besiktas boasts the likes of Guti and Simao, while Stoke has all the quality of a mid-table English Premier League team, finishing in 13th place last season and qualifying for Europe by reaching the FA Cup final in which it lost to Manchester City.
“We are delighted to have made it through to the group stage,” Maccabi coach Moti Ivanir said upon his team’s arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday.
“Our players are hungry for success and they will remain modest. Our next target is Monday’s match against Ashdod.”