Yellow-and-blue, Reds hope to move on

Mac TA takes dominant 3-0 lead into 2nd leg at Panathinaikos; Hap TA hosts Ekranas.

Eliran Atar 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Eliran Atar 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv suffered an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to FK Ekranas in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs last week, while Maccabi Tel Aviv recorded an outstanding 3-0 victory over Panathinaikos.
Both, however, are supremely confident of progressing to the competition’s group stage ahead of Thursday night’s return legs.
Despite a poor performance, Hapoel should have still easily won in Lithuania, but its awful finishing and equally disappointing defending allowed Mantas Samusiovas to head in the winner in the 82nd minute, handing the Reds their second straight humbling defeat in continental competition after falling to a 2-1 loss to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz in the second leg of the third qualifying round.
However, Hapoel bounced back by thrashing Maccabi Petah Tikva 4-1 in its Premier League opener on Monday, scoring four goals at home for a second straight match after also crushing Vaduz 4-0 in continental competition.
“We played the way we want to and I’m certainly pleased with what I saw,” Hapoel coach Dror Kashtan said after the victory over Petah Tikva.
“I hope we can make even more progress on Thursday. I wasn’t angry at the players this week and I was very calm after the loss in Lithuania. I know what I’ve got here and I’ve got something good.”
Kashtan was especially pleased with the performance of new signing Nosa Igiebor, with the Nigerian midfielder showing plenty of promise in his second match for the team after looking rusty in the first leg against Ekranas.
Striker Toto Tamuz has looked sharp ever since he joined Hapoel last season and he will be aiming to build on his two-goal performance against Petah Tikva when he comes up against the Lithuanians at Bloomfield Stadium.
“We went through some tough days and there were some cheeky people who wrongly criticized us,” Tamuz said.
“We looked good against Petah Tikva and I hope we can get the job done on Thursday.”
Maccabi has a three-goal lead to sit back on when it visits Panathinaikos on Thursday, but Moti Ivanir’s men have no intention of resting on their laurels.
“I don’t think that we can already celebrate our progress to the group stage,” said striker Barak Itzhaki, who scored his first goal of the season after coming on as a substitute in Sunday’s 3-1 league win over Hapoel Petah Tikva.
“Panathinaikos is a good team and even though we have a big lead we aren’t going to Athens for a vacation. We know that if we concede an early goal it could end up being a crazy match and we don’t want that. We will be as ready and as focused as we were in the first leg.”
After an evenly balanced first half, Maccabi dominated after the break at Bloomfield and claimed a 3-0 win through goals from Moussa Konate (60) and Eliran Atar (67, 90), improving its overall goal difference in Europe this season to 14-1 in five matches.
While the yellow-and-blue is aiming to progress to the group stage of a continental competition for just the second time in club history after also reaching the Champions League groups in 2004/05, Hapoel will be looking to do so for a third consecutive year and for a fifth time in the past six seasons.
The Reds reached the UEFA Cup group stage twice in a row (2006/07, 2007/08) before making the newlynamed Europa League groups in 2009/10 and advancing to the Champions League main draw for the first time in club history last season.
“It was important for us to beat Petah Tikva and I hope we can continue to improve from here,” midfielder Shay Abutbul said.
“We lost a lot of players in the offseason, but we still have an excellent squad. Thursday’s match is critical to the club and we need to repay the fans for all their support.”