By ALLON SINAI
Maccabi Haifa may not advance any further than the Champions League group stage following Thursday evening's draw, but at least the team will get to experience the best of European soccer after being placed in Group A with Bayern Munich, Juventus and Bordeaux.
Haifa progressed to the group stage for the second time in club history and the first since the 2002/03 season on Tuesday, defeating Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 to complete a 5-1 aggregate victory.
However, it does now seem extremely unlikely that Haifa will advance any further in Europe after being drawn in a very difficult group with two of the continent's traditional powerhouses and the French champion.
"As we expected we will be playing very strong and attractive teams," Haifa coach Elisha Levy said. "We will try to do the maximum. Regardless, the fans are set for a very enjoyable experience."
Haifa will host Bayern Munich in its first match of the group stage on September 15, before playing two matches on the road, against Bordeaux on September 30 and Juventus on October 21. Two weeks later, Maccabi will face the Italians at National Stadium in Ramat Gan, with Levy's team to visit Munich on November 25 and cap the group stage with a home match against Bordeaux on December 8.
"We've been handed a very tough draw," said striker Shlomi Arbeitman, who scored the team's winner in the 2-1 victory in Salzburg. "But I believe that at home we can beat even Bayern and Juventus. We have an excellent squad and we've proven that. At Ramat Gan we can win and I believe it is possible to finish this group in third position."
The top two teams from each group will progress to the last 16, with the clubs finishing in third entering the Europa League round of 32.
The first team drawn into Group A was German giant Bayern Munich.
After finishing in second position in the Bundesliga last season, Bayern brought in Dutch manager Louis van Gaal in the summer in the hope of regaining the league title and progressing to a Champions League final for the first time since it was crowned as European champion for a fourth time in club history in 2001.
However, the 21-time German champion has struggled at the start of this season, drawing its first two matches in the Bundesliga before losing 2-1 to Mainz last weekend.
In all likelihood, however, Bayern will soon get back to winning ways as its squad is far too deep and strong to fail on a consistent basis.
French superstar Franck Ribery remained at the club despite persistent speculation linking him with a move to Real Madrid. Bayern's squad also includes the likes of Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Bastian Schweinsteiger, with Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic and Anatoliy Tymoschuk among those to join the team in the off-season.
Juventus also failed to claim its local league title last season, but like Bayern, has strengthened its squad in the summer and is a legitimate contender to win the entire competition.
Coach Ciro Ferrara will be guiding a team in the Champions League for the first time, but his lack of managerial experience will be more than made up by the superb squad.
The 34-year-old Alessandro Del Piero remains one of the best players in the Italian league and with Gianluigi Buffon in goal and Mauro Camoranesi in the midfield, Juventus will be extremely difficult to beat. The two-time European champion also added the likes of Brazilian playmaker Diego, midfielder Felipe Melo and veteran defender Fabio Cannavaro to an already powerful squad.
Despite winning the French league title last season, Bordeaux was placed in the third seeding pot due to its relative lack of success on the European scene in recent seasons.
Nevertheless, Bordeaux was superb last season and has started this campaign with three straight league victories. The team is guided by French legend Laurent Blanc, with 23-year-old forward Yoann Gourcuff, who is being tipped to be France's next great player, the undoubted star of the side.
"This is clearly a difficult draw, but I can promise we will do our best to represent the country well," right-back Eyal Meshumar said.
"Anything can happen in soccer and we can claim points from each and every match."
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