European Soccer: Haifa handed tough clash with Austrian champ FC Salzburg

Maccabi confident of returning to CL group stage for first time since 2002; Bnei Yehuda to play Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven in Europa League.

maccabi Haifa 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Maccabi Haifa Website)
maccabi Haifa 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Maccabi Haifa Website)
Austrian champion FC Salzburg is now all that stands between Maccabi Haifa and the fulfillment of its Champions League dream. The Israeli league winner was drawn against Salzburg in the Champions League playoff round in Friday's draw at Nyon, Switzerland. Haifa will visit Austria in the first leg on August 18/19, before hosting the return leg at National Stadium in Ramat Gan a week later. The ten winners of the playoff round will join the draw for the group stage, which takes place in Monaco on August 27, with the losers automatically dropping into the inaugural Europa League group stage. "Salzburg is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, team we could have been drawn against," Haifa coach Elisha Levy said. "It's an advantage to be playing the second leg at home. I think we have a good chance of advancing. We will give our all to reach the group stage." Captain Yaniv Katan is also expecting a difficult encounter. "Salzburg is a good and experienced team," Katan said. "It will be a tough tie and we are all focusing on this mission with the hope of reaching the group stage again." Haifa has fond memories from the last time it faced an Austrian club. In the 2002/03 season, Haifa met then Austrian runner-up Sturm Graz in the third and final qualifying round for the Champions League group stage. After winning the first leg 2-0, Haifa became the first Israeli team to reach the group stage with a dramatic 3-3 draw in Austria. Maccabi and Salzburg have met once before in European competition, with the Austrians defeating Haifa both home and away in Champions League qualification in the 1994/95 season. Salzburg's best achievement in continental competition came in the 1993/94 season when it reached the final of the UEFA Cup, losing 2-0 on aggregate to Inter Milan. However, in recent seasons the Austrians have been less than impressive in European play. Salzburg, which is coached by Dutchman Huub Stevens, has only progressed past the first round of a European event once in the past 15 years, and has also struggled so far this season. The five-time Austrian champion (1994, 1995, 1997, 2007, 2009) needed road victories to overcome both Bohemian FC of Ireland and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia in the second and third qualifying rounds, respectively, after only managing to draw 1-1 at home in the first legs. Nevertheless, Salzburg was the opponent fifth seed Haifa was most hoping to avoid on Friday. The Austrians, who have won two of their first three league matches of their local season, may not have a star-studded squad, but Haifa will still be coming up against a well-balanced team of veteran internationals. Perhaps the strongest part of the team is the formidable striking partnership of former Bayern Munich striker Alexander Zickler and Marco Janko, who scored 39 goals in 34 league matches last season. Both Zickler and Janko have already found the back of the net in the Champions League qualifiers this season. The draw for the Europa League playoff round was also made in Nyon on Friday. Hapoel Tel Aviv, which was seeded in the draw, will face Czech team FK Teplice, with Bnei Yehuda to play Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven. Both teams will play the first leg on the road on August 20, with the return leg to be played in Israel a week later. The winners will advance to the Europa League's group stage. "Czech soccer is very strong and we will need to take Teplice very seriously," said Hapoel coach Eli Gutman, whose side drew 1-1 with IFK Göteborg on Thursday for a 4-2 aggregate victory in the third qualifying round. Teplice finished the Czech league in seventh position last season, but is playing in the Europa League thanks to its Czech cup triumph. While Hapoel is expected to advance, Bnei Yehuda will be a massive underdog against PSV. The former European Cup (1988) and UEFA Cup (1978) winner has been a regular in the Champions League group stage in the past decade, but was forced to settle for a Europa League berth this season after only managing a disappointing fourth place finish in the Dutch league last season. However, Bnei Yehuda will be entering the tie brimming with confidence after completing a 2-0 aggregate win over FC Paços de Ferreira in Portugal on Thursday thanks to Eliran Atar's 31st minute goal. Bnei Yehuda has won all six of its matches in the Europa League qualifiers to date and has done so with an impressive goal difference of 11-0. "There's no doubt we have entered the lions den with this draw," Bnei Yehuda coach Guy Luzon said. "We will learn about PSV in detail and we will do all we can to make sure the tie will be decided in the return leg at Bloomfield."