(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa will get another taste of British soccer this season, while Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Yitzhak Schum will face a familiar team. Israel's two remaining representatives in European competition learned their UEFA Cup group stage foes Tuesday when the draw was held in Nyon, Switzerland.
Reigning Israeli Premier League champion Maccabi Haifa will face stern tests against Glasgow Rangers and French outfit Auxerre, while Schum leads Hapoel Tel Aviv in Group G action, including a challenging encounter with his former club Panathinaikos.
Coach Roni Levy will guide Haifa in Group A after failing to qualify for European competition the last two seasons. The greens' biggest challenge will be an away fixture against Glasgow Rangers, which is considered one of the leading sides in British soccer. The 51-time Scottish league champion plays at Ibrox Stadium, which has a capacity of about 51,000 and is considered one of Europe's top venues.
"A very difficult draw," Haifa spokesman Roi Daniel told The Jerusalem Post. "Maccabi Haifa is Israel's top club with lots of experience in European competition, and we will do our best to try and qualify.
"We have already done a good job against Liverpool last month, showed no inferiority complex at all and even outclassing them at times. The aim is to do the same against Rangers, a top-class British side which is our ultimate challenger in this group."
Haifa's European performances have not gone unnoticed. "I watched Maccabi [Haifa] playing against Liverpool in a qualifying match for the Champions League and they looked very impressive," Rangers striker Nacho Novo told The Jerusalem Post. "They were very unlucky to be knocked out, so that shows you the quality of team we're facing."
Maccabi Haifa will also host Livorno of Italy and will have to deal with Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade, which lost to Maccabi Petah Tikva in the qualifying stage of the UEFA Cup last year.
Israel's other representative in the UEFA Cup, Hapoel Tel Aviv, is anxious to tread the same ground it did five seasons ago, when it reached the quarterfinal stage. In March 2002, Hapoel defeated AC Milan 1-0 in the "home" leg of the tie, which was played in Cyprus, but was eliminated from the competition following a 2-0 loss in the return leg at the famed San Siro Stadium.
Schum will take on Panathinaikos, the same club that he led to a historic double in 2004. The Greek side led by Schum won the league championship after an eight-year drought, which instantly turned him into a fan favorite and made him a prominent figure in the club's rich history.
Tel Aviv will be glad that "Pana" will have to play the match in an empty stadium due to a UEFA ban from last season, which was handed down as a result of serious fan violence during last year's competition.
The reds have also been drawn to face top-notch French club Paris Saint-Germain. Portuguese goal-machine Pauleta, winger Jerome Rothen and Ivory Coast star Bonaventure Kalou are just a few of the names that the Israelis will have to contain in the tough game at the 48,527-seater Park De France stadium.
Other Group G rivals include Romanian side Rapid Bucharest and Mlada Boleslav of the Czech Republic, which is scheduled to visit Bloomfield Stadium.
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