MACCABI TEL AVIV coach Paulo Sousa 370.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
While FC Basel enters Tuesday’s Champions League third qualifying round first leg against Maccabi Tel Aviv as a firm favorite, the yellow-and- blue could not have really hoped for a better time to face the Swiss champion.
Ever since the draw was made less than two weeks ago, Basel has suffered numerous blows, most of them self inflicted.
When Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah said in an interview six months ago that he would never play against an Israeli team, he surely didn’t think he would be put to the test so soon afterward.
Salah and teammate and countryman Mohamed Elneny quickly found themselves in the center of a storm in Switzerland, but they are expected to be in the squad on Tuesday, although they are unlikely to travel to Israel for the return leg.
While the club was trying to reach a compromise with Salah and Elneny, Argentinian striker Raul Bobadilla gave the management another headache after he was caught speeding last week.
Bobadilla was stopped by police after driving his Maserati at 111 kilometers per hour, more than double the limit of the village road he was on, making the front-page news in Switzerland’s best-selling daily Blick.
Basel president Bernhard Heusler said in a club statement that it “can’t tolerate such behavior” and banned him from Saturday’s match against Lausanne-Sport.
Basel managed without him, winning 2-0, but Bobadilla could feature on Tuesday, although he still faces a possible prison sentence for the offense.
One player Basel will certainly be without on Tuesday is the star of its sturdy defense in the past two years, Aleksandar Dragovic.
The 22-year-old left Basel for Dynamo Kiev last week for a transfer fee estimated at nine million euro.
Coach Murat Yakin is the man who will have to find an answer to Dragovic’s absence and the distraction caused by his Egyptian players.
Despite being just 38-years-old, Yakin has already proven his coaching pedigree, leading the club to the championship, the cup final and the semifinals of the Europa League last season after joining Basel in October.
Basel also defeated Manchester United 2-1 to progress to the last 16 of the Champions League at the expense of the English giant in 2011/12, which more than explains Maccabi coach Paulo Sousa’s wariness ahead of the tie.
“Looking at the figures, they are ranked 35th in UEFA and we are 176th,” Sousa explained.
“They will be coming to the match with the advantage of 30 years of experience in Europe. The team won the championship in the last four years and reached the Europa League semifinals last season.”
Nevertheless, Sousa remained upbeat.
“Basel is a well-organized team, but I have confidence in my players and, from what we’ve seen so far, they have given me a great deal of faith,” he said.
“The last two games against the Hungarian team led me to believe that we will be able to generate a good game and bring the dream closer. For us, the chances are always 50-50 and we believe that for our opponent to win they have to be much better than us.”
Sousa is expected to start with the same 11 players that led Maccabi to a 2-0 victory over Gyori in the first leg.
The 34-year-old Juan Pablo Colinas has impressed in goal to date, with Sousa also having no reason to make changes to the reliable back-four of Shiran Yeini, Yoav Ziv, Eitan Tibi and Carlos Garcia.
Midfielders Gal Alberman, Maharan Radi and Eran Zahavi have also picked up where they left off last season, with 19-year-old Omri Altman proving to be a real revelation so far.
After missing the second leg versus Gyori through a back injury, Rade Prica is set to return on Tuesday and team-up with fellow striker Barak Itzhaki.
“As I stated in the past, the Champions League is a dream for us all,” Sousa said. “We must hold on to this dream with a lot of ambition and hard work in order to bring it closer.”