Maccabi Tel Aviv aims to secure playoff berth

Yellow-and-blue takes leads into 2nd leg vs Panionios, Bnei Yehuda up against it

Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Cristian Battocchio (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Cristian Battocchio
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Anything other than a berth in the Europa League playoffs will be a bitter disappointment for Maccabi Tel Aviv on Thursday night, while Bnei Yehuda only wants to make sure it exits the competition in respectable fashion.
Maccabi will take a fragile 1-0 advantage into the second leg of the Europa League third qualifying round tie against Panionios in Greece.
Icelandic striker Vidar Orn Kjartansson’s goal in the 48th minute was all that separated the teams in Netanya last week, giving the yellow-and-blue its fifth straight win to begin the season.
While Maccabi would love to extend its winning streak, it would be more than happy to settle for a draw or even advance on away goals on Thursday, as it aims to come through four qualifying rounds to reach the group stage for a second straight season.
Panionios played in Netanya without its two Iranian players, with Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi refusing to travel to Israel.
It is still not known if they will take part in Thursday’s match in Greece .
“They have some good players and they are a good team,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff of Panionios after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Bnei Yehuda in Toto Cup action. “They created one good clear chance in the first leg and will press more and play much more physical in the second leg. We will have to battle.”
Cruyff believes the tie is still wide open.
“We must always respect our opponent and be well prepared. I see our chances as 50/50,” he noted.
Cruyff said after the first leg that he is hoping Maccabi can make it through to the playoffs and add new players before the next round.
One of the players it is targeting is former yellow-and-blue striker Eliran Atar. Maccabi Haifa announced on Monday that it turned down an offer of 600,000 euros for the 30-year-old, who was the Premier League’s top scorer in 2012/13 while playing for Tel Aviv. His career has faltered since, struggling to earn playing time at Stade de Reims in the French league before returning to Israel after a year-and-a-half to join Haifa in January 2015.
Bnei Yehuda entered its third qualifying round tie with far fewer expectations than Maccabi and is fully expecting its campaign to come to an end on Thursday. Bnei Yehuda visits Russian powerhouse Zenit St. Petersburg after losing the first leg in Petah Tikva 2-0.
Last season’s State Cup holder kept the Russians at bay until the 59th minute, when Domenico Criscito headed in the opener. Aleksandr Kokorin’s goal in the 90th minute ended any illusion Bnei Yehuda may have had of mounting a comeback in Russia.
Zenit took its summer spending to an estimated 57 million euro this week after signing Argentinian defender Emanuel Mammana from Lyon for over 13 million euros, around double Bnei Yehuda’s entire budget.
Mammana won’t play on Thursday, but Italian coach Roberto Mancini has plenty of other players to ensure his team doesn’t slip up at home.
Bnei Yehuda arrived in St. Petersburg on Tuesday without Ayid Habshi and Ben Turgeman after they missed the connection flight at Istanbul airport.
Their absence was only noticed after the plane took off and they had to board a later flight to rejoin the squad in Russia.
“We are facing a team that is a lot better than us and we just want to return home with a good result,” said Bnei Yehuda coach Yossi Abuksis.
“I’m a very realistic person and I know that it will be very difficult to advance. The players deserve credit for playing well in the first leg and now I’m hoping we can end this campaign in a respectable manner.”