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(photo credit: AP)
The outcome of Maccabi Haifa's UEFA Cup Round of 16 first leg against Espanyol will likely be determined by the answer to one simple question. Which Haifa team will show up at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night?
Will it be the side that has won four, drawn three and only lost one of its eight UEFA Cup matches this season? Or perhaps the team that has only won one of its last seven Premier League games.
The difference between Haifa's play in Europe and in the league is mind-boggling. In the UEFA Cup, Maccabi has shown all the skill and composure that helped the club cruise to the last three Israeli championships. However, in this season's league campaign, Haifa's form has been erratic at best and embarrassing the rest of the time.
Haifa's domestic troubles are also a mystery to coach Roni Levy, who is hoping his team can once more leave its league form behind and raise its play against a quality European club.
"We lost in an unacceptable fashion in the Premier League on Saturday, but we usually raise our level play in Europe and I hope we will continue to do so against Espanyol," Levy said Wednesday. "They may be missing several players, but, regardless of who plays, they're still a very strong club which is well coached.
"We are looking for a result that will give us a chance to advance in Barcelona. The Spanish club is the favorite on paper, but we were also the favorite against Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan on Saturday and we all know how that match ended [Hakoah won 2-1]. I can promise we will give our all."
Spanish defender Juan Velasco and midfielder Pablo Zabaleta will miss the match due to injury, with Ivan De La Pena, who hasn't played in his club' last five matches, also doubtful for Thursday. Espanyol will be without Brazilian midfielder Jonatas Domingos, who returned to his homeland without permission. The team's coach, Ernesto Valverde, is also expected to rest two of his stars, first team goalkeeper Carlos Kemani and striker Raul Tamudo.
"Haifa is not playing well in the league this season, but they are having a good year in Europe, so we can't underestimate them," Valverde said. "We've watched several of Maccabi's matches and we know there will be a good atmosphere tomorrow. Our goal is to win the match."
Espanyol has won six matches in a row in the UEFA Cup and is in excellent form in the Spanish league, winning three of its last four. Uruguayan striker Walter Pandiani, who will replace Tamudo in the starting lineup, is the top scorer in the UEFA Cup with eight goals and despite his club's status as favorite is not taking Haifa lightly. "Maccabi has reached the last-16 after defeating strong sides," he said.
"They play at a very high level, knocking out such clubs as CSKA Moscow and deserve our respect. We need to go for the win and make life as difficult as possible for Haifa."
Coach Levy will have a full squad to pick from as Yaniv Katan, Adoram Keisi and Maor Melikson all have recovered from injury.
Dekel Keinan, who will once again anchor the Maccabi defense, feels the team is ready for Thursday's challenge. "We've worked very hard to reach this stage and you don't have to be a genius to understand how important this match is," he said.
"Haifa is obligated to try and win every match it plays. We've watched plenty of Espanyol matches on video and I'm sure we're ready."