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(photo credit: AP)
Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Guy Luzon faces the biggest match of his fledgling career on Thursday night when his side plays AIK in the second leg of the UEFA Cup first round in Sweden.
Hapoel has faltered badly at the start of the Israeli Premier League season, picking up just three points in its first four matches. So the pressure has already begun to mount on its new coach.
A 0-0 draw in the first leg at Bloomfield Stadium two weeks ago leaves the tie finely balanced and gives Luzon a chance to put all his troubles in Israel behind him by advancing to the group stage of the UEFA Cup.
"Our league form has no effect on our matches in Europe. I think that there's no connection between our league and European matches," Luzon said on Tuesday. "I know that if we want to get to the group stage we must score at least one away goal. We will definitely have scoring opportunities and I hope we can make the most of them."
Hapoel reached the first round after defeating Bosnian club Siroki Brijeg 6-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round.
It is looking to become the first Israeli team to progress to the group stage of the UEFA Cup on two consecutive seasons.
Tel Aviv reached the round of 32 of the UEFA Cup last season, losing eventually 5-2 on aggregate to Glasgow Rangers.
Midfielder Baruch Dego is expected to return from injury for the Reds, with gifted playmaker Reuven Oved also set to be in the side's starting lineup after his impressive goal in Hapoel's 1-1 league draw with Hapoel Kfar Saba on Saturday.
Luzon will definitely be without one regular, with right-back Danny Bonder to miss the match after being ruled out for a couple of months through an injury he picked up on Saturday.
AIK struggled against Latvian side Metalurgs in the second qualifying round, losing 3-2 in the first leg on the road and only just advancing with a 2-0 victory at home.
The club has also had its fair share of problems in recent weeks, failing to win any of its last four matches in all competitions.
The team has drawn its last three league matches after winning its previous six.
AIK finished third in the Swedish league last season and with three matches remaining in the season is placed in fourth position, just three points behind leader IFK Goteborg.
AIK, which has won 10 Swedish championships, is hoping to claim just its third league title in the last 70 years and first since 1998.
AIK, which reached the group stage of the Champions League in the 1999/2000 season, is playing in European competition for the first time in three seasons.
"The match will be tougher than the first leg in Bloomfield, but we are ready," veteran Hapoel defender Yigal Antebi said.
"Our goal is to advance to the group stage. We're putting our league campaign aside and concentrating on Thursday's match. We will do everything to progress. It's very important for the confidence of the players that we do well in Europe.
"There's a positive pressure on the team and I hope we can take advantage of that. The outcome of this match is very important to the remainder of our season."