hapoel TA soccer 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
On the one hand Hapoel Tel Aviv's match against R.S.C. Anderlecht in the group stage of the UEFA Cup on Thursday night couldn't have come at a worse time.
The Israeli cup holder is languishing in 11th position out of 12 in the Premier League standings and has failed to win any of its first six matches of the campaign.
The team suffered humbling defeats to Maccabi Herzliya and Bnei Sakhnin in its last two league encounters and is looking nothing like the championship contender it hoped to be at the start of the season.
On the other hand, however, the game in Belgium couldn't have come at a better time. Hapoel has yet to concede a goal in European competition this season and has played its best matches of its UEFA Cup campaign away from home.
Guy Luzon's side defeated Siroki Brijeg 3-0 in the second qualifying round in Bosnia in August and edged AIK Solna 1-0 in the first round of the competition in Sweden three weeks ago.
A further boost for Hapoel is that Anderlecht hasn't won at home in European competition for more than two years, drawing or losing its last eight matches in Belgium.
Victory on Thursday could prove to be a turning point in Tel Aviv's season, but for that for happen, the team will need to put aside its form of recent weeks and draw inspiration from the club's European run last season.
Despite struggling in local league play, Tel Aviv reached the round of 32 of the UEFA Cup last season, losing eventually 5-2 on aggregate to Glasgow Rangers.
Hapoel will need to finish among the top three teams in Group G that also includes Tottenham, Getafe and AaB Aalborg, to qualify for the round of 32 for a second straight season.
Each side in the group plays four games, two at home and two away. Hapoel faces Tottenham at Bloomfield Stadium in its second group game on November 8.
"We shouldn't need to make a switch between league and European play. We should do well in all competitions," Hapoel defender Tal Hen said on Wednesday. "However, because we haven't played well enough in the league so far we will need to make a switch and make sure we're ready for this match.
"We aim to win every match we play. We believe in ourselves. Our aim before the match against Paris Saint Germain last season was to win and we won. This doesn't mean we'll claim the victory on Thursday, but that's our goal."
Anderlecht, which is the two-time defending Belgian champion, has also struggled in its league play this season and is currently in fourth position in the standings, five points behind leaders Standard Liege.
"I know it won't be an easy match, because Hapoel has nothing to lose," Anderlecht manager Franky Vercauteren said on Wednesday.
"Hapoel has a good team and its players will come and fight for a result. We hope an early goal will break their spirits, but we won't be surprised if they play better than they have recently in the Israeli league."
The former UEFA Cup winner, which defeated Ghent 2-1 in its most recent league match on Sunday, only just edged Rapid Vienna 2-1 on aggregate in the first round after drawing 1- 1 in the first leg at home.
"I watched Anderlecht's match on Sunday and the team is of a very high level," Hapoel coach Luzon said. "Our goal at the start of the season was to reach the group stage and I'm happy we achieved this goal.
"Obviously, we would like to continue doing well in the competition, but we must be wise and rotate our lineup so that our league form doesn't suffer as a result. Anderlecht is the clear favorite, it's a Champions League caliber team, but we will do our best."
Hapoel captain Walid Badier was confident on Wednesday that the players will be up to the task in Belgium, despite their poor play in the Premier League.
"Hapoel Tel Aviv is a big club that knows how to compete on two fronts," he told the club's official Web site.
"We are well aware of the criticism, but we are professional players and we can't let that effect us. We face an excellent team on Thursday and the odds are stacked against us. However, we have sprung surprises in the past and we will try to do so once more."