Champion's League: Haifa hosts Aktobe in decisive second leg
Spot in final qualifying round, financial windfall up for grabs tonight at Kiryat Eliezer.
By ALLON SINAI
A victory against FK Aktobe at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Tuesday night will not only ensure Maccabi Haifa progresses to the fourth and final Champions League qualifying round, but will also guarantee that the Israeli champion's European campaign will extend well into December.
Despite still needing to overcome what will surely be a tricky tie in the final qualifying round to reach the Champions League group stage, Haifa will already clinch a lengthy continental run with a win on Tuesday, as even if it eventually loses in the qualifying playoffs it will be handed an automatic berth to the Europa League group stage.
A win against Aktobe will also mean the club's bank account will grow by some $6 million, almost two-thirds of its total yearly budget, thanks to increased proceeds from television rights, ticket sales and UEFA bonuses.
Haifa enters Tuesday's third qualifying round second leg in a delicate situation after drawing 0-0 in the first leg in Kazakhstan last week.
Maccabi had its chances to win in Kazakhstan, but coach Elisha Levy admitted after the match that a draw was a fair result.
On Monday, in a press conference, he said he was pleased with his team's position entering the return leg.
"We recorded a good result on the road against a good team, but we are now focusing on winning the second leg and advancing," Levy said. "We have drawn our conclusions from the first leg and we are ready to win this match. We are well aware of the importance and significance of this match."
Levy is expected to name the same lineup as he did in the first leg, with Yaniv Katan and Vladimir Dvalishvili to start up front and Mohammed Ghadir to keep Gustavo Boccoli out of the starting 11 once more.
"We have yet to decide on our starting line-up, but I don't feel it really matters who eventually starts," Levy said. "We've got 15 good players and I expect anyone who plays to do what is needed to get through this match."
Aktobe's Russian coach Vladimir Mukhanov is confident of his team's chances against Haifa.
"We've learned all about Haifa and we certainly believe we can advance," Mukhanov said. "We don't have a secret weapon, but we are good enough to cope with Haifa."
There are still plenty of tickets available for the match at Kiryat Eliezer, with only 8,000 sold so far. However, Katan is still hopeful the fans will pack the stadium and push the team to the next stage.
"The crowd is very significant to us. I hope the stadium will be full," Katan said. "We weren't surprised by Aktobe in the first leg.
We knew what to expect. Aktobe is an excellent team, but we believe in ourselves."
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