Champions League: Betar gears up for European qualifier

Wisla Krakow stands between Jerusalem and a potential clash with one of Europe's finest.

zandberg betar 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
zandberg betar 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
There was a sense of deja-vu at Teddy Stadium on Tuesday, as Betar Jerusalem coach Itzhak Schum sat down to face the media ahead of Wednesday evening's crucial Champions League second qualifying round first leg against Wisla Krakow. It is nearly a year since the same coach sat in front of the press before the second leg of a tie against FC Copenhagen, when Betar was defeated in extra time. Like last year, Schum stressed that there will be "no excuses" if Jerusalem loses, saying his team is fully prepared for the game. But, also like last year, he claimed that there is no gulf in class, and both teams are of an equal calibre. "There are no secrets here. They know all about us and we know about them. Whoever plays the best will advance." This tie pose a great chance for Betar, a club which has never made it past this early stage of European competition. Schum appeared somewhat nervous as he spoke, but insisted his team can beat Krakow and advance to the third qualifying round, where it could face European giants such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona or Juventus. "If our players play the soccer they know they can, with motivation and speed, I am sure we can play excellent soccer and win," he said. Krakow arrived for its training session at Teddy at around 6:30 p.m. and the team's coach Maciej Skorza spoke confidently about its chances. "We came here to advance in the Champions League. After a good season with many good results we hope to have more good results," he said. While the situation at Betar seems very similar to last year, there have been some subtle but significant changes to the team. For the second year in a row a South American striker has been brought in by Schum to provide the goals. But, unlike last season, when Brazilian forward Romulo made his debut against Copenhagen, Sebastian Abreu is a man of much experience, and has had more time to train with the team than Romulo, who arrived only a week before the first game. Arik Benado, who sat next to Schum at the press conference, has replaced David Amsalem as captain and will anchor the center of defense, as he did last year. Central midfielder Gal Alberman, who became Betar's linchpin last season, has left to play in Germany and has been replaced by Argentinian Dario Fernandez. Benado played in the Champions League group stage with Maccabi Haifa six years ago and was hopeful of making it again. He stressed the importance of not conceding an away goal to the Poles. "This is the start of the journey," he said. "The Champions League is a different level. We can be underdogs now, but it is important to win in the opening game." Betar held its final training session before the game at its Jerusalem training ground on Tuesday evening, but even then Schum had not decided upon his starting line-up. The defense was practically decided, with Yoav Ziv to play at left back, Cristian Alvarez on the right and Tomer Ben-Yosef partnering Benado in the center. But questions remained over whether to play Abreu as a lone striker up front or to partner him with Toto Tamuz. If Tamuz plays, then it is expected that Fernandez will play on the left of midfield, Aviram Bruchian on the right, with Idan Tal alongside Derek Boateng in the center. If Tamuz is left on the bench, Michael Zandberg will likely play in a supporting role behind the striker. It is still doubtful whether striker Barak Itzhaki will even make the squad, after he suffered an injury during a training game against Maccabi Herzliya on Friday. Krakow is also expected to play a 4-5-1 formation. Skorza, 36, took over as coach at the start of last season and won the Polish league at his first attempt, with essentially the same team which finished eighth the year before. He is known as a skilful tactician who can get the best out of his players. Striker Pawel Brozek showed his worth, scoring 23 goals in the league last term. Brozek's twin brother Piotr will play at left back and is considered the weakest link in an otherwise strong back four which features Brazilian Cleber in the center. One of the main threats will come from left winger Marek Zenczuk, a player who has transformed himself under Skorza, setting up a league-leading 12 goals last season and scoring 16 himself.