MACCABI HAIFA 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv battled hard to reach the group stage of the UEFA Cup and celebrated long after accomplishing the feat. On Thursday, the teams will finally experience the occasion they craved for so badly when they play their first of four group matches.
The Israeli clubs will face tough opposition. Haifa hosts Auxerre at Bloomfield Stadium while Tel Aviv travels to Greece to face local giant Panathinaikos.
Each UEFA Cup group is comprised of five clubs, with the top three qualifying for the next stage. Each team plays four matches, once against every side in the group, two at home and two away.
Auxerre finished sixth in the French league last season and reached the group stage of the UEFA Cup after defeating Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb 5-1 on aggregate in the first round.
The French club is known for its legendary manager Guy Roux, who retired after the 2004/05 season following more than 40 years as the team's boss. Roux had managed the team since 1961 and guided it to its only ever league championship in the 1995/96 season. Auxerre replaced Roux with Jacques Santini, a former France national team coach, who was sacked after a single season in charge.
At the start of this season, Jean Fernandez took charge and so far has had mixed success. Fernandez has led the team to the UEFA Cup group stage, but in the league, Auxerre is in 11th place with three wins in its first nine matches.
"We are playing against a very strong opponent and we will have to score from the few chances we get," Haifa coach Roni Levy said at a press conference on Wednesday. "We are playing at home with our fans. The attitude and resolve we show will be the difference in this match. We are capable of giving a fight to any team in Europe."
Auxerre, which lost 3-1 to Rennes on Saturday, will be no pushover on Thursday and is hoping to leave Israel with a victory. "We have come to win and we don't plan to play defensively," the Fernandez said on Wednesday. "I know Haifa very well. They have dangerous players like Roberto Colautti, Alain Masudi and Yaniv Katan. They are an excellent team."
Auxerre's most recognizable player is French international Benoit Pedretti. The 25-yearold midfielder, who has also played for Lyon and Marseille, was full of compliments for Israeli soccer after he arrived in the country on Wednesday. "There is no reason why we should be afraid to come to Israel," Pedretti said.
"I know that Israeli soccer is making constant progress. The Israeli under-21 team defeated the French side and that shows the progress. Haifa is a very dangerous team, but we have come to take all three points."
Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Yitzhak Schum returns to Greece to face the team that he coached to the Greek league and cup double in the 2003/04 season.
Panathinaikos finished third in the Greek league last season and reached the group stage of the UEFA Cup after defeating Ukrainian side Zaporizhya 2-1 on aggregate in the first round.
Schum's European expertise is going to good use at Hapoel, leading the team to the group stage against the odds. Tel Aviv is coming off an impressive 2-0 win over Maccabi Haifa on Sunday and will face a strong team in green once again on Thursday.
The match will be held in front of empty stands after Panathinaikos was punished by UEFA for its fans' misconduct. "I would have preferred that Panathinaikos and Hapoel fans would be at the match. Nevertheless, for us it is better to play without a crowd," Schum said on Wednesday.
"We have studied each and every Panathinaikos player, but the important thing is how the match will develop. We are aware of the pressure they will place on us, but they are not playing against thin air. We will cause them problems."
Panathinaikos coach Victor Munoz only joined the team nine days ago and will guide his side for the first time in the match against Hapoel. "I had a problem because I had to study my own team and Hapoel Tel Aviv at the same time, but we made a big effort and we did it," Munoz said at a press conference on Wednesday.
"I want my team to win - that is our goal. We've seen a few Hapoel games and we know all the players. Hapoel has weaknesses and we will take advantage of them."
On TV: Maccabi Haifa vs Auxerre (live at 8:45 p.m. on Channel 10).