Haifa hosts Olympiacos in Champions League

Greens look to rebound from Super Cup loss to Beersheba • Other Israeli clubs kick off in Europe

 OMER ATZILY (right) and Maccabi Haifa have their work cut out for them tonight against visiting Olympiacos in Champions League action (photo credit: Israel Professional Football League/Courtesy)
OMER ATZILY (right) and Maccabi Haifa have their work cut out for them tonight against visiting Olympiacos in Champions League action
(photo credit: Israel Professional Football League/Courtesy)

Maccabi Haifa will get its European season under way as it welcomes Olympiacos to Sammy Ofer Stadium on Wednesday night for a UEFA Champions League second-round, first-leg qualifying matchup.

The Greens, under the direction of Barak Bachar, played in the Conference League group stages last year but will attempt to return to the top-flight competition after over a decade.

However, prior to playing the Greek side, Hapoel Beersheba defeated Maccabi Haifa 1-1 (4-3) on penalties this week to capture the Super Cup, Israel soccer’s first title of the season.

Tomer Hemed, who just returned to Israel after more than a decade playing abroad, scored the decisive penalty at Sammy Ofer Stadium to hand the Southern Reds their second straight trophy win over the Greens after having closed out the last campaign with the Israel State Cup.

Omer Atzily opened the game with a quick strike from 20 meters to give the Carmel Greens a 1-0 lead in the first minute. However, Beersheba came back to draw even on a Eugene Ansah goal from in close in the 70th minute.

As the match moved to spot kicks after 90 minutes of play, Atzily and Frantzdy Pierrot both had their penalties saved by Omri Glazer while Hemed slammed home his opportunity to send the traveling Beersheba fans into ecstasy.

“The result reflected the actual game, but at the end of the day when you get to penalties it’s just a lot of luck.”

Beersheba coach Elyaniv Barda

“You can say that we were lucky, but you can also say that we played very well in the second half,” said Beersheba coach Elyaniv Barda after his team hoisted the trophy. “The result reflected the actual game, but at the end of the day when you get to penalties it’s just a lot of luck.”

Bachar didn’t take his team’s loss too hard.

“We began the game in fine fashion with plenty of opportunities and misses,” said the Haifa bench boss. “When you don’t take advantage of these chances, and then concede a goal, it usually isn’t great. Unfortunately we lost on penalties, but we now have to lift our spirits up and take the positives to Wednesday’s game.

Hemed didn’t hide his excitement after his triumphant return to Israel

“This is my first game back and one for a title where I had the decisive penalty, you couldn’t script it any better. I’m not going to lie – it was very exciting and I am happy that we won. Many people were surprised that I came back and signed with Beersheba, which really wanted me. After 11 years abroad it was great to be an important part of the victory.”

Israel Conference League

Israeli clubs playing in Europe will have a busy week as Beersheba too prepares for its Conference League second-round qualifying tie against Dinamo Minsk from Belarus, while Maccabi Tel Aviv takes on Zire from Azerbaijan and Maccabi Netanya plays Turkish side Başakşehir.

As those three clubs will try their luck to advance to the Conference League group stage, Maccabi Haifa readies to face Olympiacos in Champions League action.

The Greens won the Israeli League championship over the past two seasons and are looking to win their third in a row, but want to make some noise in Europe as well.

Last campaign was the first time since 2013/14 that Haifa participated in the group stage of a continental competition and it is trying to not only do the same this season but advance to the Champions League group stage, which it has not done since the 2009/10 campaign.

Bachar is in his third season at the helm of the Greens and has made sure to strengthen his squad ahead of the duel with Olympiacos.

The club has brought in a number of veteran players to complement the stars that are already in place and are piloted by Dutchman Tjaron Chery. The Netherlands native is the engine that makes Haifa run thanks to his high soccer IQ, his deft play and his ability to always either find the right man with a pass or score a key goal when called upon.

The two past players of the year in the Israeli league – Atzily and ’keeper Josh Cohen – are critical pieces in the success of the team. Atzily topped the scoring chart last season with 20 goals, as well as being the assist leader with 10 helpers, and he can also deliver a dangerous ball, with 43 accurate key passes. The American-born Cohen provides quiet confidence in goal and is a leader on and off the pitch as well.

Other Haifa players who could cause issues for Olympiacos are Dolev Haziza, who was also an important contributor on the offensive side of the ball, defensive player of the year Sean Goldberg and Muhammed Abu Fani, who can change the game in an instant with his ability to dribble through a tough defense or free up one of the attackers. In addition, Bogdan Planic was critical for Bachar’s backline and had a superb season for the Greens.

Newcomer Daniel Sundgren will shore up the right-back position while Pierre Cornud will do the same at left-back and Frantzdy Pierrot will also be counted on to help with the scoring.

Haifa fans are cautiously optimistic about their team’s chances against Olympiacos but also know that the Greek powerhouse has been playing in top European competition for years and that it will be a very tough opponent.

Olympiacos enters the tie as the champion of Greece and, as George Stogiannos from zougla.gr explained, has also gotten even better than the previous season.

Along with the additions, Stogiannos explained that Olympiacos’s key player is Moroccan striker Youssef El Arabi.

“The striker has played 151 games across all competitions and has scored 78 goals. While he is the top scorer in the club’s history in European competitions, he was also the top scorer in the Greek league in both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.”