Maccabi Petah Tikva resumes its European adventure on Thursday evening when it hosts Italian outfit Palermo on the opening matchday of the UEFA Cup group stage. Petah Tikva, which upset Serbian champs Partizan Belgrade 5-4 on aggregate in the previous round, will once again be the underdogs in the five-team group, which as well as the Sicilian club includes Espanyol of Spain, Lokomotiv Moscow of Russia and Brondby of Denmark. Each of the teams will play four games in the group stage, twice at home and twice away. The winners, runner-ups and the third placed clubs will all advance to the knockout stage.
Espanyol defeated Lokomotiv 1-0 Wednesday in the Group B's opening game from a Raul Tamudo goal in the 54th minute.
Maccabi may be on paper a weaker side then the Italians, but it is actually the more experienced of the two teams in European play. Petah Tikva is playing in the UEFA cup for the second year running, while Palermo made its debut in UEFA action this season after finishing sixth in last years Italian Serie A.
Petah Tikva will be missing midfielder Asi Mashiah, who hasn't fully recovered from an injured foot and will start on the bench. Missing out altogether is playmaker Salim Touma, who's still out with the injury he picked up in Maccabi's victory against Partizan three weeks ago.
Maccabi is pleased with its underdog status and is trying to lower the expectations as much as possible. Coach Guy Luzon said: "The Italians are favorites, they come from a stronger league and have a larger budget. I've been very impressed watching them... They're strong, fast and disciplined."
He added, "I've seen all four teams in the group and with no doubt, they're the best."
Club chairman Avi Luzon echoed his coach and nephew's sentiment and said: "We are nervous and concerned, Palermo is a team that plays at a level we have never faced before."
Despite the difficult task ahead, Luzon is not giving up hope altogether. "We have faith that we can continue to surprise and hopefully finish in the top three and advance to the next round."
Palermo is currently seventh in the Italian league with three wins, three draws and only one loss.
Coach Luigi Del Neri is set to rest five of his usual starters. "We have an important game against Milan on the weekend and the local league is our top priority."
Despite the importance of the weekend fixture, Del Neri isn't taking the game against Petah Tikva lightly. "This game is crucial, there are only four games in the group and if we lose it might prove critical."
Palermo striker Nigerian Stephan Makinwa will miss the game after injuring his thigh in Sunday's league game against Chievo Verona.
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