Hapoel Tel Aviv 298.88.
(photo credit: )
Hapoel Tel Aviv will look to take a significant step towards ensuring Israeli soccer fans enjoy continental action well into the winter when it faces AIK Solna in the first leg of the UEFA Cup first round at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night.
Hapoel, which faces the Swedes in the return leg in Stockholm in two weeks time, is Israel's only remaining representative in European competition and is aiming to advance to the group stage of the UEFA Cup for a second straight year.
"We are well aware of the importance of this match, for Israeli soccer and for our club," Hapoel coach Guy Luzon said on Wednesday. "I'm personally hoping to reach the group stage for the second time in my coaching career. The club is also looking to become the first Israeli side to reach the group stage two seasons in a row. We will do all we can to accomplish this feat."
Luzon, who guided Maccabi Petah Tikva to the group stage in the 2005/06 season, led Hapoel to a 6-0 aggregate victory over Bosnian club Siroki Brijeg in the second qualifying round. He is, however, still a long way from repeating the team's achievement from last season, when Tel Aviv reached the round of 32 of the UEFA Cup, eventually losing 5-2 on aggregate to Glasgow Rangers.
Solna 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.
AIK finished third in the Swedish league last season and is currently placed in third position, just one point behind leader Djurgarden. The Swedes have already played 21 league matches this season and will have a significant advantage over Hapoel, which is just three games into its Premier League campaign.
Tel Aviv has yet to claim a win in the league this season, but Luzon is confident the team's poor form will not affect his side on Thursday, saying "obviously we would have liked to record better results in the league, but we played well in some of the matches. As soon as we display our improved form for larger parts of the game we will win our matches."
AIK ended a six game winning streak by drawing 2-2 with Halmstads BK in its last league match on Sunday.
"This match is very important to us. I believe in my team and I believe we will advance," Solna coach Rikard Norling said.
"Hapoel is a good team," he continued. "Its dangerous players are captain Walid Badier and strikers Lior Asulin and Fabio Junior. We have a crucial derby match against Djurgarden next Monday, but we are nevertheless treating the Hapoel match seriously. Our team is very young and it's important for us to succeed in Europe."
AIK, which has won 10 Swedish championships, is hoping to claim its third league title in the last 70 years and first since 1998 in the coming months . Solna, which hasn't taken part in European competition in three seasons, reached the group stage of the Champions League in the 1999/2000 season, finishing bottom of Group B, which included Barcelona, Arsenal and Fiorentina.
Midfielder Baruch Dego is Hapoel's only injury doubt and will likely be replaced in the starting lineup by youngster Bibres Natcho.
"Dego is a very good player and the rest of the team will have to do their very best," Luzon said.
Despite the fact that Israeli sides traditionally struggle against Scandinavian opponents, the coach believes he knows what his team must do to win.
"We need to work hard and be more disciplined then our opponent," he said. "We face a very tough battle."
On TV: Hapoel Tel Aviv vs AIK Solna (live at 8:50 p.m. on channel 10)