Mac TA under the spotlight in Turkey

Yellow-and-blue visit Besiktas for heavily-hyped group opener with political undertones; Maccabi Haifa hosts AEK Larnaca while Hapoel TA welcomes Rapid Bucharest.

Maccabi Tel Aviv arrives in Turkey 311 (R) (photo credit: Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Maccabi Tel Aviv arrives in Turkey 311 (R)
(photo credit: Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Soccer seems to be the last thing on everybody’s mind ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Europa League Group E opener against Besiktas JK in Istanbul on Thursday night.
The escalating crisis between the Israeli and Turkish governments has raised fears that local authorities will not be able to protect Maccabi players and fans at the I˙nönü Stadium, resulting in almost unprecedented security measures for Thursday’s match.
Maccabi will be escorted by police throughout its 48-hour stay in Turkey, with over 2,500 policemen welcoming the team at the airport on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv’s management decided to leave nothing to chance and also hired a private security company, as well as requesting UEFA to send a representative to oversee safety matters.
Players have been told that they will only be allowed to leave the team hotel for training sessions and the match itself, while fans, who decided to follow the team despite the National Security Council’s warnings, were requested to take off shirts identifying them as supporters of the yellow- and-blue.
“We are not interested in politics,” Maccabi coach Moti Ivanir told Turkish media upon the team’s arrival in Istanbul.
“We are here to play soccer. We have been here before and we are expecting everything to be the same. We are not scared of anyone and we are not concerned anything will happen to us.”
Maccabi players were not allowed to speak to media ahead of the match, but one player said: “It is very strange to be traveling to a match abroad with no one talking about soccer. Clearly we would have preferred that the situation would be more calm, but it shouldn’t effect our play on the field.”
Besiktas urged its fans not to stir up trouble, releasing a statement on Wednesday asking its supporters to show “hospitality” to Maccabi, warning that the club could face punishment from UEFA for any unruly behavior.
“As for the tension between Turkey and Israel, we are professionals and we want to do nothing but play football.
We are not interested in politics,” Besiktas coach Carlos Carvalhal was quoted as saying on the club’s website.
Despite all the distractions, Maccabi is determined to focus on the task on hand, knowing every point will be crucial in a group which also includes Dynamo Kiev and Stoke City.
Maccabi has got its season off to an outstanding start, comfortably winning all three of its Premier League matches while reaching the group stage of a European competition for just the second time in its history by overcoming Greek giant Panathinaikos.
Midfielder Moshe Lugasi will miss Thursday’s match through injury, with star-striker Eliran Atar also seriously doubtful.
Besiktas, which overcame Alania Vladikavkaz 3-2 on aggregate to advance to the group stage, will be entering the match on the back of a defeat after falling 2-1 to Eskisehirspor in its first league encounter of the season on Saturday.
Spanish star Guti did not play any part in that defeat, but the Turks squad also includes the likes of Hugo Almeida, Ricardo Quaresma and Simao, so it should come as little surprise that Ivanir has declared that he will be more than happy with a draw in Istanbul.
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv also play their Europa League group openers on Thursday, but unlike the yellow-and-blue, they will not settle for anything but a win.
Haifa hosts AEK Larnaca in Group J while Hapoel welcomes Rapid Bucharest to Bloomfield Stadium.
It has been more than three weeks since Haifa missed out on a place in the Champions League group stage after losing to KRC Genk on penalties, but the Greens have yet to recover, as clearly seen in Saturday’s 1-0 Premier League defeat at Ashdod SC.
Owner Jacob Shahar spoke to the players ahead of Tuesday’s training session, telling them: “Despite the fact that we are going through a rough patch and failed to win in Ashdod I have come to cheer you up and give you support. I want to enjoy Thursday’s match and I’m counting on you.”
Midfielder Dela Yampolsky admitted that the high level of expectation is beginning to weigh on the squad.
“There is a little bit of pressure,” he said. “But it is positive pressure to succeed as we are a new team and we need to play more matches to gel.”
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 after overcoming Norway’s Rosenborg, but it has only managed draws in its first two local league matches.
“I know all about Maccabi Haifa,” Caanen said. “It is going to be very difficult to play against Haifa, but I’ve got a good feeling we can leave Israel with the points.”
In Group J’s other match, Roni Levy’s Steaua Bucharest hosts Schalke 04 of Germany.
Hapoel begins its fifth appearance in the past six years in a group stage of continental competition with a match that could go a long way to deciding if Dror Kashtan’s team ends the group in the top two and makes it through to the round of 32.
Tel Aviv’s group, which also includes Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven and Legia Warsaw, is the easiest of the three groups including Israeli teams, but as expected, Kashtan has no intention of taking any side lightly.
“We have the tendency to underrate European clubs, but Rapid is a strong side,” Kashtan said. “We are facing a disciplined team which knows what it is doing, but Hapoel Tel Aviv enters every match with the aim of winning.”