Maccabi Haifa begins its duel with Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday night in UEFA Champions League Play-Off Round action for a trip to the group stage of the exclusive continental club competition.
The first leg will take place at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Israel in front of 30,000 rabid fans, while the second leg is slated for next week at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Serbia and will be packed to the rafters with 53,000 supporters in the highly anticipated matchup.
The Greens haven’t advanced to the group stage of the Champions League since the 2009/10 season, but have featured in European competitions throughout the past decade, including the Europa League which they would play in once again should they lose the two-legged tie against Red Star.
As for “Crvena Zvezda,” the Serbian side has played in the Champions League group stage in two of the last four seasons and will look to do the same this campaign as well. Red Star played in the Champions League in both the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons while it advanced to the knockout rounds of the past two campaigns in the Europa League. This places the expectations quite high for Dejan Stankovic’s squad.
To get a closer look at what Barak Bachar’s Maccabi team – featuring Tjaron Chery, Dolev Haziza and Frantzdy Pierrot, among others – will be up against, The Jerusalem Post spoke with Serbian sports journalist Milos Jovanovic.
“Well – there’s no point in dancing around this one,” began Jovanovic. “The expectations are, simply put, huge. Red Star has missed out on two consecutive Champions League trips, after going twice in 2018 and 2019. This was remedied by two excellent performances in the Europa League in the previous two seasons, but the pressure is on now as both fans and management feel the team is good enough to make its mark in this year’s edition. The fact that the Serbian champion will, in all likelihood, qualify straight for the group stages in 2023/24 adds even more incentive to the mix, as back-to-back seasons of Champions League football are a massive financial uptick which can seriously impact club fortunes in the coming years.”
With Red Star’s recent success, Jovanovic feels that this is a look back to the heyday of the club back in the 20th century.
“It is not a big reach to say that this is the best Red Star ever performed in Europe ever since its halcyon days of early 1990s – in the past five seasons of continental football, the red-and-white reached spring stages of European Cups three times, something which evaded them since winning the Champions Cup back in 1991. Everyone feels that this team is now ready to take the next step forward.”
Stankovic, Red Star’s head coach, began his professional career as a player with the club and then moved to Italy and played as a midfielder for both Lazio and Inter Milan where he helped the club win the Champions League in 2010. In total, Stankovic captured six Serie A titles and was inducted into the Inter Hall of Fame in 2019, the same season he took over the reins at the Serbian outfit where he has won three straight league championships.
“I wasn’t superbly optimistic in the beginning,” Jovanovic said of Stankovic’s hiring. “His previous coaching experience was very limited [some assistant spells in Serie A]. He looked a bit out of his depth early on, but has solidified his grip on the squad both tactically and motivationally as the silverware started pouring in. Dejan Stankovic is now a venerated presence at the club – he is one of the foremost homegrown heroes of a past era, one of the youngest team captains in this club’s history and has taken part in some memorable European nights as a player. He commands massive respect from his players and the fans have deified him as a player already. He’s just adding to his legendary status now.”
As for Stankovic’s style on the pitch, the bench boss can mix it up but will usually go with a traditional formation.
“While Stankovic was prone to some experimenting in the past, this season he is opting for his trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, with a flat back four and an attacking quartet where he prefers a striker who can hold the ball up and create space for the three front midfielders. We saw Red Star play with three at the back before, but I don’t feel we’ll see this versus Haifa.”
As for some of the players the Greens will need to look out for, Jovanovic named a number of key personnel that may create havoc for Bachar’s club.
“Osman Bukari was a surprise summer signing, as he arrived from Belgium after a loan spell in France. He never really found his feet out west, but has been nothing short of brilliant in his first few games as a Red Star player.
“Kingsley Kangwa is another fresh recruit to keep an eye on.”
Jovanovic also brought up a former Israeli league marksman who Haifa for sure will be familiar with.
“Aleksandar Pesic is not a secret for Israeli football fans as he played for Maccabi Tel Aviv two seasons ago. After a good season in Turkey, where he netted 14 times for Fatih Karagumruk, he is back at Red Star and is seen as the key last piece to the puzzle up front… Pesic, who is known as “Silja” (“Goofy”) to Serbian fans, will be the focal point of many attacks in the forthcoming playoff tie.”
Jovanovic believes that the Greens will have their hands full on the pitch with a red-hot Belgrade side, but he does see a potential area that Bachar may be able to expose.
“I feel that Red Star will come out aggressively in the first leg. The club is riding a wave of good results and is superbly confident at this early stage, determined not to fall prey to upsets like in the past two Champions League qualifying trips. With this in mind, Haifa will likely try to exploit some bits of complacency and overconfidence should they find them. Stanković seems to love playing Kangwa and Kanga together in the central midfield - this combo is very potent offensively, but they lack steel in defensive shifts. If both Kangwa and Kanga do start, that midfield is vulnerable centrally and presents an opportunity for the Greens. At any rate, a good result at home comes as an imperative – Red Star doesn’t spill points in Belgrade easily.”
While Red Star’s Rajko Mitic Stadium is one of the most feared facilities in the world, Serbian fans will try to make their presence felt at Sammy Ofer as well, Jovanovic said.
“Red Star does boast some impressive traveling support, but Israel is not your “ordinary” away day, as it’s only reachable by plane and therefore also less accessible... However, I believe that the club will bring some 150-200 fans along on a chartered flight, and it’s possible that some foreign-based fans will hop over from places like London, Munich, and so on.”
“That said, I also expect to have some “local” support present in Haifa – a Serbian-Jewish community exists in Israel. [Tommy Lapid, former deputy Prime Minister and father of current prime minister Yair Lapid, was born and raised in Novi Sad], and when I was visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with the club back in 2008, we were routinely stopped by locals speaking Serbian for photos. The players will definitely welcome any friendly voice-over at Sammy Ofer.”