European money-time for Hapoel Tel Aviv

Reds favored to advance against Aktobe in Champions League third qualifying round.

Ben Sahar  311 (photo credit: Hapoel Tel Aviv Web site)
Ben Sahar 311
(photo credit: Hapoel Tel Aviv Web site)
Hapoel Tel Aviv will be playing for 3.1 million euros when it visits FK Aktobe in Kazakhstan for the first leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League on Wednesday night.
The winner of the third qualifying round tie, which will be completed when the return leg is played at Bloomfield Stadium next week, will receive 2.1 million euros. Even if Hapoel fails to make the Champions League group stage and loses in the playoff round, it will still get a place in the Europa League group stage as a consolation, which is worth another 1 million euros.
Hapoel breezed past Bosnian champion FK Zeljeznicar in the second qualifying round, winning 6-0 on aggregate. However, Tel Aviv coach Eli Gutman is expecting a far tougher time against Aktobe, which gave Maccabi Haifa a real run for its money at the same stage last season.
“This is a difficult road game,” Gutman said. “I spoke to people from Haifa and saw both of Aktobe’s matches against the Georgian champion Olimpi Rustavi and we will have play smart. We will need to pressure the Kazakhs and play our regular game. But on the other hand we cannot give them too much space because they have several players who know how to play if they are given a chance.”
After drawing 0-0 with Maccabi Haifa in the first leg at home last season, Aktobe took a stunning 3-0 lead after just 15 minutes at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, only for the Greens to fight back to claim a 4-3 victory.
However, Aktobe has lost several important players since last season and the three-time defending Kazakh champion is currently just fourth in its local league after 20 matches.
“We have a different opponent but the conditions are the same,” Aktobe coach Vladimir Mukhanov said.
“Have you ever been to a sauna? It’s much like that in Israel during the summer. It’s very hot, and the humidity is really high. Of course the locals are used to the weather, but it’s quite hard for others to adapt.”
Aktobe was also not that far away from losing to Rustavi in the previous round, essentially only clinching its progress in the last minute of the second leg thanks to Murat Tleshev’s equalizer, securing a 1-1 draw to win 3-1 on aggregate.
“We lost to Maccabi for many reasons – climate, lack of luck, different level of football,” Mukhanov said.
“Hapoel look stronger now, but we are a dark horse. We have a chance to qualify for the next round. Football is loved all around the world because sometimes it’s not the strongest team that celebrates victory.”
Despite being the clear favorite, Gutman is the last person who will take an opponent lightly.
“Ivan Peric is a good player, while Titi Essomba is excellent on the right flank and he will give Dedi Ben- Dayan a tough time,” he said. “Marat Khayrullin plays well under the striker and Aktobe is generally a very disciplined and organized team. This will be a challenge for us.”
Gutman is expected to make a couple of changes from the lineup which started against Zeljeznicar.
Goalkeeper Galil Ben-Shaanan will return to the bench after replacing Vincent Enyeama in the second qualifying round, with the Nigerian ’keeper now ready to play after rejoining the team in training over the weekend.
Douglas da Silva, Walid Badier, Omri Kende and Ben-Dayan will likely make up the back-four yet again, with midfielders Gili Vermut, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin also all but guaranteed a place among the starting 11.
Gutman is considering making one change in the midfield, replacing Yossi Shivhon with fellow new signing Romain Rocchi.
Maharan Lala and Itai Shechter will join forces up front once more, with fresh signing Ben Sahar likely to get his chance off the bench in the second half after training with the team for the first time on Sunday night.
“We are very happy Ben has joined us. He can help us a lot,” Shechter said. “We are facing a very difficult match against a strong team which has proven itself in Europe. We aspire to win every match we play and I will be more than happy if we win 1-0. It will definitely be a difficult tie, but we are confident we will progress.”