MACCABI TEL AVIV striker Barak Itzhaki 370.
(photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv website)
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa will be confident of progressing to the Europa League group stage after being handed relatively comfortable opponents in Friday’s playoff draw in Nyon, Switzerland.
After facing tougher than hoped rivals in the second and third round of the Champions League qualifiers, Tel Aviv finally enjoyed some good fortune in Friday’s draw, being paired with PAOK Thessaloniki of Greece, avoiding the likes of Stuttgart, Betis and Spartak Moscow.
Unlike Tel Aviv, Haifa was seeded in the playoff draw and was always guaranteed to play a mediocre opponent. Nevertheless, the Greens, who have yet to concede a goal in two rounds of qualifiers, will not be underestimating FC Astra after Pandurii Târgu Jiu proved how strong obscure Romanian teams can be with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv in the third qualifying round.
Maccabi Tel Aviv battled back from three goals down to draw 3-3 with FC Basel in the Champions League third qualifying round second leg last week. However, at no stage was it actually close to knocking out the Swiss champion and reaching the playoffs, losing 4-3 on aggregate and receiving a Europa League berth as consolation.
Maccabi and PAOK will be facing each other for a second time, with the yellowand- blue having fond memories from their first meeting. Tel Aviv overcame PAOK on the way to its only appearance in the Champions League group stage to date in the 2004/05 season, being awarded a 3- 0 victory in the first leg after the Greeks fielded a suspended player.
Maccabi will also benefit from an unexpected advantage against PAOK this season, with Thessaloniki to host the second leg on August 29 in front of empty stands due to UEFA disciplinary action following unruly behavior by the Greek fans.
Tel Aviv will host the first leg at Bloomfield Stadium on August 22.
Like Tel Aviv, PAOK was handed a playoff berth after being knocked out in the Champions League third qualifying round, losing 3-1 on aggregate to Metalist Kharkiv of Ukraine.
“This is an easier opponent than the other teams we could have drawn,” said Maccabi midfielder Maharan Radi. “The pressure will be on us in the first leg because we need to make sure we build an advantage ahead of the visit to Greece.”
Haifa cruised into the playoffs with a 3-0 win over FK Ventspils on Thursday (3-0 on aggregate) after crushing Xazar Lankaran 10-0 on aggregate in the previous round.
Astra is playing in Europe for the first time in club history this season after finishing the Romanian league in fourth place last term. However, it has already progressed through three rounds of qualifiers, surprising Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus in the second qualifying round before completing a 5-3 win on aggregate over FK Trencin of Slovakia last week.
“Only good teams reach the playoff stage,” said Haifa coach Arik Benado. “We know all about the Romanian team and we have two weeks to prepare and make sure we are ready to reach the group stage.”