Ailing Haifa begins 3rd round

Coming off rough 2nd leg, Greens weigh major lineup changes vs NK Maribor.

EYAL GOLASA_311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
With a squad decimated by suspensions and injuries and a big question mark hanging over its top goalkeeper, Maccabi Haifa hosts NK Maribor at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Wednesday night needing a win in the first leg of the Champions League third qualifying round.
Haifa overcame Bosnian champion FK Borac Banja Luka 7-4 on aggregate in the previous round, but it turned in a poor performance in a 3-2 defeat in the second leg last week.
And with the expected absence of four influential players on Wednesday, the Greens have plenty to prove in a crucial encounter against the Slovenian champion ahead of next week’s return leg.
Gustavo Boccoli and Seidu Yahaya, who started for Maccabi in the center of the field in both matches against Borac, are both suspended, while Yaniv Katan is expected to miss out on his second straight encounter with a back injury, and Eyal Golasa doubtful with a knee complaint.
“I don’t want to talk about the players that we will be missing. We have other players who will need to fill their boots and give more than usual. I hope that with a team effort we will be able to win this important match,” Haifa coach Elisha Levy said. “Maribor is an excellent team with a great history. It is a team quite similar to ours, both in its style of play and lineup. It’s a young side and I’m certain we are facing a very difficult match.”
Maribor, which beat Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange 5-1 on aggregate to reach the third qualifying round, has reached the group stage of the Champions League once before, in the 1999/2000 season, and remains the only Slovenian team to ever do so.
Darko Milanic’s team won just its second local championship in eight years last season, and since its historic achievement 12 years ago, it has recorded little success in continental competition, failing to make it past the Champions League qualifying rounds on five occasions.
“Haifa is the favorite,” Milanic said. “Maccabi has fast and technical players and they are very good in one-on-one situations. Nevertheless, if we can control the possession, Haifa is vulnerable.”
Besides having to deal with a depleted squad, Levy also has a difficult decision to make regarding which ’keeper to start in goal.
Nir Davidovich, who has been Haifa’s first-choice stopper for most of the past decade, played a major role in two of the goals the Greens conceded in Bosnia last week, and Levy is considering dropping the 34-year-old and giving new Serbian ’keeper Bojan Shranov his debut on Wednesday.
“We signed Shranov to make sure that we would be covered in the goalkeeper’s position,” Levy said. “Davidovich is an excellent ’keeper, even though he played a part in two of the goals we conceded against Borac last week.
“We need to play better in defense, and that isn’t just the job of the goalkeeper or the defenders.
“Our goal is to reach the group stage, and we will do whatever it takes to get there.”