Tough groups for both Israeli clubs as yellow-and-blue gets Villarreal while Reds drawn with Leverkusen
By JOSHUA HALICKMAN
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Beersheba will both be playing in the UEFA Europa League this season, which will mark the first time since the 2017/18 campaign that an Israeli team (or in this case, two) will be playing in the group stages of a continental competition.The yellow-and-blue punched its ticket by advancing to the Champions League Playoff round, where it ultimately fell to FC Red Bull Salzburg in a two-legged tie.Yossi Abukasis’s Southern Reds turned the trick by slipping by Viktoria Plzen 1-0 thanks to an early Josue penalty.Defending Israeli champion Maccabi was drawn into a four-team group with Villarreal, Qarabag and Sivasspor, while Beersheba will face a tough assignment in being grouped with Bayer Leverkusen, Slavia Prague and Nice.The Europa League opens up on October 22 when both Israeli teams will play at home, as the yellow-and-blue will host Qarabag and Beersheba will welcome Slavia Prague.Maccabi head coach Girogos Donis reflected on the draw.“There is clearly one big club in our group, namely Villarreal, but the other two clubs are also quality sides,” said Donis. “Qarabag is a very experienced side in Europe as they appeared in the Champions League group stage and they are a tough opponent. Sivasspor is a good side from Turkey which is a very good league. I believe that this group – besides Villarreal which are the clear favorites – is very open."Villarreal is a familiar foe to Maccabi Tel Aviv as the two squads faced each other in the Europa League group stages back in 2017.The first match between the clubs in Israel ended in a goalless draw while the away clash saw Nick Blackman score Maccabi’s lone goal of the tournament in a 1-0 win for the yellow-and-blue.The Spanish squad is now managed by Unai Emery, who was recently in charge of Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain, and currently sits in fourth place in La Liga.The “Yellow Submarine” has a number of dangerous players, including Gerard Moreno who scored 18 goals last season and already has three this year, Nigerian Samuel Chukwueze, Dani Parejo, Paco Alacer and Take Kubo, who is on loan from Real Madrid.In 2018, Villarreal advanced all the way to the quarterfinals of the tournament before falling to its neighbor, Valencia.Qarabag has won the Azerbaijan league championship for seven straight seasons and has played the last six campaigns in European group stages, including an appearance in the Champions League in 2017/18. Head coach Gurban Gurbanov has a number of weapons at his disposal with Spaniard Jaime Moreno, Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir and Croatian Filip Ozobić to go along with veteran captain Maksim Medvedev, who has made over 300 appearances for the club since 2006.Sivasspor finished last season fourth place in a tough Turkish league under veteran coach Riza Calimbay. This will be the first time the club will feature in the group stages of a European competition having last attempted to play in continental action back in 2009/10.One player who will be familiar to Israeli soccer fans is forward Larry Kayode, who played with Maccabi Netanya in 2014/15, while former Italian Serie A midfielder Isaac Cofie and veteran Copenhagen midfielder Claudemir de Souza also shore up the squad.Hapoel Beersheba’s group features German side Bayer Leverkusen, which has former Maccabi Tel Aviv bench boss at the helm in Peter Bosz, with former Maccabi Haifa assistant Rob Mass at his side.Leverkusen finished in fifth place in the Bundesliga last season and also features almost every year in the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League. It captured the UEFA Cup back in 1987/88 and was also the runner-up in the 2001/02 Champions League.Leon Bailey from Jamaica leads the Leverkusen attack while the Czech Republic’s Patrik Schick, Germans Karim Bellarabi and Nadiem Amiri along with defenders Jonathan Tah and Santiago Arias make Bosz’s team a formidable side.Slavia Prague has had recent success in European play and competed in the Champions League just last season.The Czech champion was in an Europa League group with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2017, when head coach Jindrich Trpisovsky took over the club. So far this season Slavia is in second place locally with four wins and a draw as its two standouts, attackers Stanislav Tecl and Peter Musa, lead the way.Nice has improved over the past few years and that is in part to its coach, former Arsenal star Patrick Vieira. The French squad last featured in the Europa League group stages in 2017/18 when it advanced to the round-of-32.Notable squad members include Danish striker Kasper Dolberg, attacking midfielder Rony Lopes, former Manchester United midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin and veteran captain Brazilian Dante.