Chance for four Israeli clubs to make playoffs

Three local second legs tonight as Mac Haifa, Hap TA and Hap Ramat Gan look to join Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Maccabi Haifa370 (photo credit: Maccabi Haifa website)
Maccabi Haifa370
(photo credit: Maccabi Haifa website)
Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa enter Thursday’s Europa League third qualifying round return legs confident of securing their progress to the playoffs with home victories.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s name is already guaranteed to be called out in Friday’s playoff draw in Nyon, Switzerland, after it dropped to a 4-3 aggregate defeat to FC Basel in the Champions League third qualifying round following a 3-3 draw in the second leg.
Hapoel Tel Aviv and Haifa are firm favorites to join the yellow-and-blue and give Israel at least three representatives in the playoff round, while Hapoel Ramat Gan will be hoping to add another fairy-tale story to the club’s bursting collection by also advancing.
Tel Aviv is the only one of the three Israeli teams in action on Thursday which has an away goal to fall back on.
The Reds drew 1-1 with Pandurii Târgu Jiu in the first leg in Romania last week, but coach Ran Ben-Shimon remains as wary as ever ahead of Thursday’s clash at Bloomfield Stadium.
“I’ve got a good feeling ahead of this match,” said Ben-Shimon. “I’ve seen nice progress from my team both in training and in matches.” Midfielder Gili Vermut could start for Hapoel for the first time since last December after coming on as a substitute in the team’s last two matches.
The star of the club’s 2009/10 championship- winning side returned to Hapoel last year, but missed the final six months of the season through a thigh injury.
“Pandurii was the runner-up in the Romanian league last season, which is just as good as the Israeli league,” warned Vermut. “I’m feeling great and I’m ready to start, but that is a decision which needs to be made by the coach.”
Ben-Shimon admitted on Wednesday that he has yet to make up his mind.
“As long as Gili is healthy he will start,” said Ben-Shimon. “It’s a complicated decision.”
After registering the biggest win ever for an Israeli team in European competition two weeks ago, crushing Xazar Lankaran 8-0 in Azerbaijan, Haifa could only manage a 0-0 draw at FK Ventspils of Latvia last week.
Nevertheless, coach Arik Benado has got little doubt his team will complete the mission at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Thursday.
“We showed we are a superior team in the first leg and we are the favorites,” said Benado. “If we do our job we will be fine. We are a better team than Ventspils and we need to beat them. We will try to be dominant and play attacking soccer, while also being vigilant.”
While Haifa and Tel Aviv would be extremely disappointed should they fail to reach the group stage, not to mention the playoff round, Ramat Gan enters Thursday’s showdown in a relaxed mood, especially after recording a surprise 0-0 draw at GD Estoril-Praia of Portugal last week.
Despite being relegated to the National League last season, Ramat Gan booked its place in continental competition by winning the State Cup in stunning fashion and new coach Arik Gilrovich believes a place in the playoffs is within his side’s capabilities.
“We have already done our part regardless of how the tie ends,” Gilrovich said. “They are a better team, but with a little bit of faith and some luck we can overcome them.”