Champions League: Hap TA dodges big names

Reds drawn with Lyon, Benfica and Schalke.

Shechter 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Shechter 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Hapoel Tel Aviv may not have been paired with the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid in Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw in Monaco.
However, the benefit of missing out on the continent’s powerhouses is that Hapoel will be confident of making its mark, and perhaps even becoming the first Israeli team to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League, after being drawn in Group B with French runnerup Olympique Lyonnais, Portuguese champion S.L. Benfica and Schalke 04, which finished second in the German Bundesliga last season.
Hapoel is the clear underdog in Group B, but after winning a Europa League group which included Hamburg, Celtic and Rapid Vienna last season, the Reds will have high hopes of becoming Israel’s most successful team in European soccer’s most prestigious competition.
“On paper this is not the most attractive group we could have got,” Hapoel’s star midfielder Gili Vermut said.
“But we don’t want to just participate in the group stage, we want to try and take points and finish in second or third position. At least we will get the chance to play Raul,” he said with a smile of the prospect of facing the former Real Madrid striker, who moved to Schalke over the summer.
Coach Eli Gutman actually feels that Hapoel has been handed a fascinating draw.
“This is an interesting group with attractive teams,” he said.
“Maybe not as attractive as Barcelona or Manchester United, but we will do our best to represent the club with honor.”
Hapoel’s group stage will begin on September 14 at Benfica and will end at Lyon on December 7.
Maccabi Haifa was the first Israeli team to reach the group stage, winning two and drawing one of its six matches in the 2002/03 season to finish in a very respectable third position.
Maccabi Tel Aviv managed one win and one draw in the 2004/05 season, with Maccabi Haifa becoming the first team in the competition’s history to end the group stage without points or goals last season.
Hapoel, which will have to play its home matches at National Stadium in Ramat Gan after UEFA ruled Bloomfield Stadium isn’t fit to host the group stage, will surely manage to at least score in its six group games and will believe in it chances of avoiding last place in the group.
Lyon has become an integral part of the Champions League in the past decade after winning seven straight French league titles between 2002 and 2008. However, the Frenchmen have failed to win their local championship in the past two campaigns, although they did reach the semifinals of the Champions League last season.
Benfica claimed its first Portuguese league title in five years last season, but has had little success in the Champions League in recent times, getting past the group stage just once in the past decade.
Schalke finished second to Bayern Munich in Germany last term, but it has also only passed the group stage a single time in its past four appearances since 2001.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Ajax, who have won 20 European Cups between them, will meet in the group stage.
It is the second consecutive season that nine-time champion Madrid and seven-time winner Milan have been drawn together. Auxerre is the fourth team in Group G.
“You want to win every match and when you see AC Milan and Real Madrid in the pool, you know it will be tough,” Ajax coach Martin Jol said Thursday.
Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf, a two-time winner with the Serie A side, has also won the competition with Madrid and Ajax.
Defending champion Inter Milan, whose coach Jose Mourinho left to join Madrid after May’s final, will play Werder Bremen, Tottenham and FC Twente in Group A.
Bayern Munich, last season’s losing finalist, was drawn with AS Roma, FC Basel and Cluj in Group E.
Barcelona will be hoping to avoid losing to Rubin Kazan for a second straight season.
The 2009 champions were drawn with the Russian club in Group D alongside Panathinaikos and FC Copenhagen.
Premier League champion Chelsea will also be traveling to Russia, to face Spartak Moscow. Marseille and newcomer Zilina are also in Group F.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will be reunited with Rangers, which he played for in the 1960s.
Valencia and Bursaspor of Turkey make up Group C.
Arsenal will face former striker Eduardo da Silva when it plays Shakhtar Donetsk, while FC Braga of Portugal and Partizan Belgrade complete Group H.
AP contributed to this report