Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Barak Itzhaki.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv will in all likelihood require an away-goal at Basel on Thursday night to have any chance of reaching the last 16 of a European competition for the first time in club history and become the first Israeli side to do so in seven years.
Maccabi visits FC Basel in the second leg of the Europa League round-of-32 after drawing 0-0 at Bloomfield Stadium last week.
The teams will be meeting for the fourth time this season, with Basel knocking out Maccabi in the Champions League third qualifying round at the start of the season, claiming a 1-0 victory in Switzerland in the first leg before drawing 3-3 at Bloomfield.
Despite Basel’s weakened lineup, Tel Aviv couldn’t break down its defense last week, creating very few scoring opportunities until opting for a more attacking formation in the closing minutes.
Paulo Sousa’s men will have to find a way through Basel’s defense in Switzerland if they plan to progress, unless they believe they can hold out for a 0-0 draw and triumph in a penalty shootout.
Basel coach Murat Yakin rested players last week ahead of Sunday’s Swiss league match at Grasshoppers, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Basel maintained a six-point gap from third-place Grasshoppers, but saw its lead at the top cut to just three points by Young Boys Bern.
Maccabi also saw its cushion at the top of the local standings reduced over the past weekend after it could only manage a 2-2 draw with Hapoel Haifa. Hapoel Beersheba closed to within four points of the yellow-and-blue thanks to its 4-0 victory at Hapoel Ramat Hasharon.
However, both Tel Aviv and Basel will not be thinking of their quests to defend their league titles on Thursday, particularly Maccabi, as it looks to extend its historic continental campaign.
Until this season, Tel Aviv had never even progressed past a group stage in Europe. However, it now finds itself within touching distance of emulating the Maccabi Haifa side which made it as far as the round-of-16 of the UEFA Cup – the Europa League’s previous name – in the 2006/07 season.
Hapoel Tel Aviv reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup in 2001/02, with Haifa advancing to the last eight of the now extinct European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998/99.
Red Bull Salzburg likely awaits Maccabi in the last 16, with the Austrians claiming a 3-0 first-leg victory over Ajax in Amsterdam last week.
That is assuming, of course, that Maccabi first overcomes Basel.
The yellow-and-blue will be without defensive anchor Carlos Garcia on Thursday after he was suspended for picking up a yellow card in the first leg.
Coach Sousa has an otherwise full squad at his disposal and will hope to finally find the way to get the better of Basel after three previous failures this season.
“Of course we believe we can knockout Basel,” said Garcia, who traveled with the team to Switzerland despite his suspension. “If we didn’t believe we could do it than we might as well have stayed in Israel. We are facing a very difficult match. Both teams know each other very well, but I’m sure there will be some changes in the lineups and the tactics. This is the team’s most important game of the season to date and I believe in my friends.”