Champions League Soccer: History on the line for Maccabi Haifa

Levy's Greens can lose 1-0 at home to Salzburg and still advance to group stage.

maccabi haifa salzburg FC 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
maccabi haifa salzburg FC 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Despite entering Tuesday night's Champions League playoff second leg in a commanding position, Maccabi Haifa coach Elisha Levy was in a cautious mood on Monday ahead of the biggest match of his coaching career. Haifa defeated Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 in Austria last week and even a 1-0 loss at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Tuesday night will not deny the team a place in the group stage of European soccer's premier competition for the second time in club history and for the first time since the 2002/03 season. The Israeli champion outplayed Salzburg in the first leg and deserved to win through substitute Shlomi Arbeitman's 84th minute strike. However, even though it holds a comfortable lead and will have the advantage of more than 30,000 fans supporting the team at Ramat Gan, Levy knows his side has still got plenty of work to do before it becomes the first Israeli club to reach the group stage more than once. "We recorded a good result in Austria, but we understand that this is a two-legged tie and we will need to give our all on Tuesday to advance," said Levy, who spent the first 19 years of his career coaching small teams before signing with Haifa last summer. "We are ready both physically and mentally." Considering Haifa's recent continental experience, it is no surprise Levy is refusing to take anything for granted. In two of its last three attempts to reach the group stage, Haifa suffered heartbreak in the return leg at home. In the 2004/05 third qualifying round, the Greens took a 2-0 lead against Norwegian champion Rosenborg BK after losing the first leg 2-1. However, after floodlight failure had stopped play, Harald Brattbakk scored with a 90th minute free-kick to take the tie into extra time in which Haifa conceded twice more and was knocked out. In the following season, Haifa seemed on course for an away-goals victory over Sweden's Malmö FF, leading 2-1 at home in the second qualifying round after a 3-2 defeat in Sweden. But Arbeitman was sent off and ten-men Haifa conceded an 89th-minute equalizer which ended its European dream. Haifa's last continental home match also very nearly ended in disaster, with the team trailing 3-0 after 15 minutes against Kazakhstan's FK Aktobe before scoring four unanswered goals to advance. "We proved in the first match that we are strong enough to progress," captain Yaniv Katan said on Monday. "We are all very excited and are looking forward to the match. No one knows how the match will unfold, but as ever we will be looking to win." Perhaps the biggest reason for concern for Haifa is the fact that Salzburg has relied on its away form all summer, advancing to this stage thanks to road victories over Bohemian FC of Ireland and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, following 1-1 draws at home. Slazburg's goal scorer in the first leg, 35-year-old German Alexander Zickler, is hoping for a little help from above on Tuesday. "We need a minor miracle," the former Bayern Munich striker said. "We have shown in previous rounds that we never give up and we still believe we can do it. Haifa is a very tough opponent, but we have already shown we can play well away from home." Levy is expected to make only one change from the team which won so impressively in Salzburg, with Portuguese defender Jorge Teixeira to replace the suspended Dekel Keinan. Shai Maimon, who stood in for Teixeira in the first leg, recovered from a minor injury and will team up with the Portuguese in the center of the Haifa defense. Youngsters Eyal Golasa and Mohammed Ghadir are once more set to start on the flanks of the midfield following their excellent showings in Austria. "We won't be making any major changes to our lineup, but we will only decide on the identity of our starting 11 on Tuesday," Levy said. "We will need to defend well as a team, as we did in Salzburg and Kazakhstan. However, we are an attacking team and as always we will be playing to win."