Maccabi Tel Aviv's Tal Ben-Haim.
(photo credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV WEBSITE)
Maccabi Tel Aviv looks to secure its place in the Champions League third qualifying round despite having to host Tuesday’s second leg against Santa Coloma in Cyprus, while it continues to strengthen its squad ahead of the tougher challenges that lie ahead.
Maccabi holds a 1-0 lead entering the second leg of the second qualifying round, which will be played in Larnaca, Cyprus due to the security situation in Israel.
The yellow-and-blue was far from impressive in its first match of the season in Andorra last week, but Rade Prica’s winner clinched a 1-0 victory and ensured the team should have little trouble qualifying for the next round on Tuesday.
“Of course we would have rather played in Bloomfield Stadium in front of our fans but we understand that is impossible and we must play here,” said Maccabi coach Oscar Garcia on Monday.
“The situation in Israel affects the players and is also not easy for me, but we are professionals and we have to cope with it.”
Considering the less than ideal preparation for the match, Oscar remains wary of the Andorrans.
“We can’t control the situation, but only what we do in training,” said the Spaniard. “It isn’t easy to win a match in Europe. We will have to be strong mentally to win this game. Santa Coloma believes it can beat us and we will have to stop them.
Maccabi is aiming to book a meeting in the third qualifying round with either HSK Zrinjski of Bosnia or NK Maribor of Slovenia.
Maccabi, which was knocked out by FC Basel in the third qualifying round last season, will have to wait until Wednesday to see who it will face next, assuming it first overcomes Santa Coloma.
The first leg between Maribor and Zrinjski ended in a 0-0 draw, with the return leg to be played in Slovenia on Wednesday. The first leg of the third qualifying round will already be played next week on July 29-30, with the twotime defending Israeli champion scheduled to host the second leg a week later.
Maccabi should have new midfielder Nosa Igiebor available by next week, with the Nigerian set to finalize his move to the club in the coming days.
The 23-year-old Igiebor will leave Seville club Real Betis after failing to land a regular starting role at the La Liga side.
“I’ve had bad luck with injuries and have experienced many things which require me to go somewhere where I can regain my focus,” Igiebor told the official Betis website. “I want to restore my joy of playing good football and although I will miss this group of players I think it’s time to leave.”
Igiebor joined Betis from Hapoel Tel Aviv three years ago.
Maccabi also remains in pursuit of Israel national team striker Eden Ben-Basat, who is considering leaving French club Toulouse.
While only a small amount of fans flew out to Cyprus to support the side, the Maccabi squad took the initiative to provide the funding for a group of youngsters (and two accompanying parents) from the areas surrounding the Gaza strip to accompany the team for the second leg. In addition, the youngsters received a package of club merchandise and attended the team’s prematch training session.
“Eran Zahavi came up with the idea and we all supported it,” said midfielder Dor Micha. “It is a big privilege for us to bring some joy to these children.”
Micha believes Tuesday’s match holds a special significance.
“We represent Maccabi, but the country as well,” he said. “If we can record a good result and bring some joy to people in Israel that will mean everything to us. It is tough to come to training and hear that soldiers have died and families have been ruined. However, you need to lift yourself because there is no other choice.”
While Micha is expecting a tough test from Santa Coloma, he is not only confident of overcoming the Andorrans, but of also ultimately reaching the Champions League group stage.
“People underestimate Santa Coloma,” he insisted. “They aren’t a great team, but they give their all. We won, but 1-0 is a fragile lead and we must make sure we are ready. We really want to take another step this season and try to reach the group stage. I really believe we can do it.”