There's still hope for European success

At first glance, it all appears to have been a big failure. Four Israeli teams began their European campaigns last week and all of them lost the first leg of their ties. The treatment of Israel by UEFA clearly did not help. It was hard enough for Bnei Yehuda to play against an established European side like Lokomotiv Sofia, let alone be forced to play the home leg of the tie outside of Israel. Bratislava is not exactly similar to Tel Aviv. And Hapoel Tel Aviv's defeat by lesser-known Slovenian side Domzale was clearly hindered by the fact that its home leg was played in Holland, where few Tel Aviv fans were on hand to support their team. But look again, and despite Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Haifa also losing out in their games against Dinamo Bucharest and Liverpool, respectively, there is still some hope. Haifa, which put in an impressive performance at Anfield, still has the opportunity to cause a massive upset and dump the 2005 European champion out of the Champions League at the first hurdle. Considering the upheaval at Maccabi Haifa, with established names like Michael Zandberg and Idan Tal abandoning the Israeli champion over the summer, let alone the difficulties of having to train and live outside Haifa due to the constant barrage of Katyusha rockets for more than a month, the boys in green did amazingly well. Liverpool has perhaps not been in good form in preseason, but it was expected that the reds would sweep the Israelis aside with ease, like Arsenal had defeated Dinamo Zagreb 3-0. Gustavo Boccoli's 28th minute goal stunned the Scousers, and it was only a defensive error that allowed Mark Gonzalez to give Liverpool the lead three minutes before the final whistle. It is unfortunate that the return leg will not be played in Israel, but in Cyprus. However, looking back at the last time Haifa was forced to host its European games on the island, it is likely a sizable Israeli crowd will make the trip to cheer on the boys. The away goal is invaluable and if Haifa can nick a quick one early on, it will change the face of the tie. Betar's loss in Romania also appeared to have an air of predictability about it. For another season, Arkadi Gaydamak's expensively put together team seems to be unable to produce the goods, even though manager Ossie Ardiles looked like he had created some sort of team-bonding and atmosphere during the summer training camps which had turned into good preseason results. However, anyone who watched the Bucharest game will know that it was played on the most appallingly waterlogged pitch which ruined the chances of a proper game of soccer; at one point, Betar's French midfielder Fabrice Fernandes tried to take a corner kick and the ball only bobbed along the massive puddle around the corner flag. Betar may have lost, but the team from the capital also played well and created enough chances to give some hope to its faithful fans. An early goal in the return leg from speedy striker Amit Ben-Shushan or the physical Toto Tamuz and the yellow and black could advance in the UEFA Cup. Hapoel Tel Aviv also has everything to play for, but Domzale's calamitous goal in the last minute will work against them as it will count as an away goal and means the team in red will have a much more difficult task. And for Bnei Yehuda to overturn a 2-0 deficit will be amazingly impressive.