hapoel tel aviv itai shechter_311.
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
After finally picking up its first Champions League point, Hapoel Tel Aviv has its sights set on claiming an historic triumph in European soccer’s premier competition when its hosts SL Benfica at Bloomfield Stadium on Wednesday night.
Hapoel’s 0-0 draw with Schalke 04 three weeks ago not only gave the team a first-ever point in the Champions League group stage, but was also the first for an Israeli club since Maccabi Tel Aviv drew 1-1 with Juventus on December 8, 2004.
Tel Aviv will now look to become the first local side to win in the competition in 13 attempts, with the yellowand- blue the last to do so, beating Ajax 2-1 on November 3, 2004.
“In our first three matches we gathered experience and now is our chance to take points,” Hapoel midfielder Gili Vermut said on Tuesday. “We showed some improvement against Schalke and we have a good chance against Benfica. We are not the favorites, but I hope we can claim the win.”
Hapoel continued its Premier League resurgence with a 3-1 victory at Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday, its sixth win in seven matches.
There was further good news for coach Eli Gutman, with star-striker Itai Shechter coming on as a substitute at Sakhnin, making his first appearance for the club since limping off the pitch during Tel Aviv’s league match against Maccabi Petah Tikva exactly a month ago.
“This is our last home match of the campaign and our goal will be to play the way we know and move the ball around the pitch,” Gutman said. “I was pleased that everyone apart form Salim Toama took part in training today.”
Shechter is expected to return to the starting lineup against Benfica, playing up front with Toto Tamuz.
Vincent Enyeama will stand in goal once more, with Douglas da Silva and Bevan Fransman to team-up in the center of the defense.
Danny Bondarv and Dedi Ben-Dayan will maintain their places on the defensive flanks, with Avihai Yadin and Eran Zehavi both expected to recover from minor injuries to start in the midfield with Vermut and Shay Abutbul.
“This match will be different than the one we lost to Benfica in Portugal,” said Gutman, who saw his team drop to a disappointing 2-0 loss in its group opener in Lisbon.
“We will approach this match with a different attitude and we will look to put on a show.”
After defeating Lyon 4-3 three weeks ago, Benfica will be ideally placed to challenge for a top-two finish and qualification for the last 16 should it beat Hapoel.
“This is an extremely important match,” coach Jorge Jesus said. “We will do everything to beat Tel Aviv. This is our last road game and our chances to advance depend on it. This match is like a cup final for us.”
Benfica will have striking trio Pablo Aimar, Oscar Cardozo and Javier Saviola back together for the first time in two months, while central defender Luisao returns from suspension.
“We’re lucky that advancing depends on us alone,” Saviola said. “But we’ll be up against a team that surprised us with its quality in the first game even though we won.”
In Group B’s other match Wednesday, Raul Gonzalez is coming off a
three-goal performance in the Bundesliga and will look to extend his
Champions League scoring record when Schalke faces Lyon.
The Spaniard now shares the record of 70 goals in all European
competition with AC Milan striker Filippo Inzaghi, but the Italian is
out for the season with a knee injury.
Raul scored three goals to help Schalke win 4-0 against Werder Bremen, another Champions League club, at home on Saturday.
Schalke is still only three points from the bottom of the Bundesliga and
coach Felix Magath hopes his team is finally finding its stride at
Lyon had a poor start to the season but has moved within two points of the top after beating Lens 3-1 at the weekend.
AP contributed to this report.