maccabi haifa 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa plays its final match of the UEFA Cup group stage Wednesday night in Italy with the knowledge that a single point against AS Livorno will secure it a place in the next round of the competition.
A defeat in Italy would still leave Haifa on the verge of qualification for the round of 32, with Livorno and Partizan Belgrade needing to win both of their remaining matches to deny the Israelis.
Nevertheless, to avoid a nail-biting finish in two weeks when the rest of the sides in the group play their final match of the stage, Maccabi will need to get something out of its game in Livorno and secure itself a top-three finish in Group A on Wednesday night.
Haifa defeated AJ Auxerre 3-1 and Partizan 1-0 in its home matches in the group stage, with the 2-0 loss to Glasgow Rangers in Scotland sandwiched between the wins.
Roni Levy's men will be playing their third game in seven days on Wednesday, after drawing 1-1 with Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday, three days after defeating Partizan at Bloomfield stadium.
"We're tired, but we have had enough time to gather our strength ahead of the match," veteran defender Alon Harazi said Tuesday. "We were always confident that we could do well in our home games and it seems as though those matches will make the difference in the end."
Livorno coach Daniele Arrigoni is set to field a strong side against Haifa in a bid to clinch a first victory in the group stage.
The Italians will be hoping for a positive result on Wednesday at Armando Picchi Stadium after losing 3-2 to Rangers and drawing 1-1 with Partizan Belgrade in their first two matches in the group.
Arrigoni expects a much improved performance from his team, which is fourth in Serie A, after it let slip a twogoal advantage against rockbottom Reggina in the Italian league over the weekend. Livorno only returned to the top flight in 2004 after 55 years in lower divisions.
"This is a very important match for us," Arrigoni said at the pre-match press conference on Tuesday. "We know that only a win will give us a chance to reach the next stage.
"I watched Haifa's game against Auxerre and you could tell that they are a very strong team. I think that Haifa and Rangers are the best sides in the group."
Livorno, which is competing in its first European campaign this season, is boosted by the return from injury of captain and top scorer Cristiano Lucarelli. The 31-yearold, who has struck three goals in the UEFA Cup this season, was the Serie A top scorer with 24 goals in 35 games in 2005 and will be a constant nuisance for the Israeli defense.
Lucarelli is complemented up front by Ibrahima Bakayoko, who has played in the past for Everton and Olympique Marseille. The team also has a solid defense, which is built around former Bayern Munich defender Samuel Kuffur, Italian Fabio Galante and goalkeeper Marco Amelia.
"The match in Livorno is probably the toughest in the group stage, but we are experienced enough to deal with it," forward Yaniv Katan said. "I just hope that we have the strength to get a draw. There's no doubt that Haifa is a better team when it plays in Europe."
Lior Rafaelov could make a surprise appearance in Haifa's starting 11, with Levy extremely impressed by the youngster's progress.
"In the last two games, Rafaelov has proved to me that he deserves a spot in the line-up," Levy said. "I'm happy that he's developed over time to be what I had hoped for. Last season he made a significant breakthrough, but suddenly he went backwards both professionally and mentally.
"Now he understands what I expect from him, and he's showing tremendous progress. Rafaelov understands that to get in the line-up, he has to go up against good players and be excellent to replace them. To have a permanent spot in the line-up, you need more than just talent."
Levy is confident that his side can get a point and is preparing to make a few adjustments to compensate for his players' fatigue.
"We hope to get a result that will be good enough to advance," he said. "This will be a very difficult away match against a very difficult side. We will be composed and do the maximum. In some matches the most important thing is to get the result, and the way you get it is not so important. Several of our players are worn-out and we may well make changes."
AP contributed to this report.
On TV: Maccabi Haifa vs AS Livorno (live at 9:45 p.m. on Channel 10).