Both TA clubs in European action with 3rd-round first legs

Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv enter their Europa League third qualifying round first legs as clear favorites.

rafi dahan maccabi tel aviv_311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
rafi dahan maccabi tel aviv_311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv enter their Europa League third qualifying round first legs as clear favorites on Thursday night and will be looking to all but clinch their progress even before next week’s return legs.
Maccabi visits FK Zeljeznicar in Bosnia, hoping to build on its impressive 3-1 aggregate victory over Xäzär Länkäran FK of Azerbaijan in the previous round.
After last season’s heavy spending ended in disappointment, yellow-and-blue coach Moti Ivanir has set out to build a young and cohesive team, and the early signs look promising.
The likes of Rafi Dahan (21), Munas Dabbur (19) and Moussa Konate (18) look set to become the stars of the side long before anyone predicted they would, although Ivanir is careful not to place too much pressure on his youngsters just yet.
“We have a big squad with a lot of good players and I will rotate my lineup,” Ivanir said. “We have spoken about the fact that we always want to use the same system of play, both home and away. However, it is psychologically difficult to do that when you are playing the first leg on the road and know that you’ve still got a home leg to come.”
Ivanir will be without starstriker Eliran Atar, who remained in Israel to rest his ailing back, and influential midfielder Guillermo Israilevich is also a doubt.
However, the coach is still confident that the rest of his squad is more than capable of defeating the Bosnians, who lost 6-0 on aggregate to Hapoel Tel Aviv in Champions League qualifying last year.
“I’m not sure we are the favorites,” Ivanir said. “We are playing a team that is of a similar level to that of our previous opponent, perhaps slightly better. I think we can beat them, but I won’t say that we are the favorites.”
Zeljeznicar reached the third qualifying round by recording a 1-0 aggregate win over FC Sheriff of Moldova.
Hapoel is expected to have a much easier time than its archrival when it hosts Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz at Bloomfield Stadium.
Hapoel will be playing its first match of the season on Thursday and new coach Dror Kashtan is anticipating a winning start to his fourth tenure with the Reds.
“Vaduz surprised us by knocking out Serbians Vojvodina, but we have done all we can to learn all about them,” Kashtan said. “We are certainly the favorites but we must remain grounded. I never take any opponent lightly and we are making all the right preparations to ensure that they don’t surprise us.
“Hapoel has a long tradition in European competitions and we intend on adding to it this season.”
Vaduz stunned FK Vojvodina of Serbia in the second qualifying round, recording a 3-1 road win to advance on away goals after losing 2-0 at home in the first leg.
Tel Aviv will have a completely new look this season, with five star players leaving and Kashtan replacing Eli Gutman.
Eran Zahavi (Palermo), Vincent Enyeama (Lille), Danny Bondarv (Volga Nizhny Novgorod), Gili Vermut (Kaiserslautern) and Itai Shechter (Kaiserslautern) all left for the continent, with Hapoel only making two significant signings so far, adding Israel striker Omer Damari and former PSG goalkeeper Apoula Edel.
“We are undergoing a certain process and our goal for the moment is simply to take one round at a time,” Kashtan said. “I have full faith in this squad, but it needs to be improved slightly if we are to have the ability to play at the highest levels of European soccer.
“We’ve got time until the end of August to sign players and we have no intention of rushing into anything and turning our team into a train station.
“I have no fear in taking on Hapoel at its current situation. I believe in my abilities and I have achieved every goal I have set myself in Israeli soccer throughout my career.
“I have plenty of dreams and aspirations for Hapoel and I hope to realize them.”