Greens get Genk at home for first leg

With question-marks aplenty on both sides, Mac Haifa welcomes Belgians in playoffs.

Amashe 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Amashe 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Haifa enters Wednesday night’s Champions League playoff first leg against KRC Genk in a far from ideal situation, but its troubles pale in comparison to those of its Belgian opponent.
Haifa will only welcome back injured captain Yaniv Katan for the second leg next Tuesday and chairman Jacob Shahar was outraged at his players following Saturday’s 1-0 Toto Cup victory over Bnei Sakhnin, telling them that if they intend on playing the same way against Genk, then he won’t even bother watching the match at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Wednesday.
The Greens were also far from impressive in their 3-2 aggregate victory over NK Maribor in the third qualifying round and coach Elisha Levy has been working tirelessly with his players to improve their performance ahead of the playoffs.
Genk’s players, on the other hand, don’t even know who will coach them next week after manager Franky Vercauteren signed a lucrative contract to join United Arab Emirates club Al Jazira last week.
Vercauteren will likely guide Genk for the last time at Ramat Gan and he will have to do so without several key players.
Chelsea target Kevin De Bruyne will miss the tie through injury, with defenders Anthony Vanden Borre and Anele Ngcongca both suspended and striker Marvin Ogunjimi also a doubt.
Genk has also only managed a draw in its last two league matches, conceding an 87th minute equalizer in Saturday’s 2-2 tie with Zulte- Waregem.
Nevertheless, Genk’s Israeli striker Elyaniv Barda believes his team will be able to maintain its composure for Wednesday’s match and record a result that will allow it to progress to the Champions League group stage after next Tuesday’s return leg in Belgium.
“For us nothing has changed. Our goal is to beat Haifa and reach the group stage, regardless of who is coaching us,” said Barda, who played for Haifa for three seasons (2002- 2005) before joining Hapoel Tel Aviv from which he moved on to Genk.
“We respect Vercauteren’s decision to further his career. We as players also want to do the same.
“We are facing a very difficult match against a very good and experienced team. We will be without four key players, but Haifa also has its problems. Our target is to record a result that will allow us to decide the tie at home.”
Genk, which advanced to the playoffs with a tight 3-2 aggregate victory over Serbian champion Partizan Belgrade, won the Belgian championship for the third time in its history last season, edging Standard Liege.
The Belgians have reached the Champions League group stage once in the past in 2002/03, the same season Haifa became the first Israeli side to do so.
Haifa also played in the group stage two seasons ago, while Genk has had little success in continental competitions since 2002.
Until this season, the Belgians had won just two European ties in nine years and in the past two seasons they have seen their continental campaigns end in August with defeats in the Europa League playoffs.
However, even without De Bruyn and Ogunjimi, Genk can cause Haifa plenty of problems, especially with the likes of Jelle Vossen and Barda, who will be a handful for Levy’s inexperienced defense.
With Croatian Jurica Buljat suspended after picking up a second yellow card in the return leg against Maribor and Ukrainian Andriy Pylyavskyi out for around two months with an ankle injury, Levy is expected to pair new signing Itzik Cohen and 19-year-old Sari Falach in the center of the defense.
Cohen only joined Haifa from Hapoel Acre last week, but he is confident he is ready to make his European debut in such a crucial match.
“I’m very happy to be playing for Haifa, not just because it is a big club but because this is where I began my career,” Cohen said. “The first thing Elisha told me was that he expects me to lead the defense and I hope I can do that.”
Tamir Cohen, who also signed last week, is not expected to start on Wednesday, with Levy to stick to Gustavo Boccoli and Seidu Yahaya in the center of the field, while Vladimir Dvalishvili and Wiyam Amashe will start up-front once more.
“We are facing a difficult encounter.
There are no easy games in Europe, especially not against the Belgian champion,” Levy said. “I hope we can record a good result and open up a lead that will help us progress to the group stage next week.”
On TV: Maccabi Haifa vs KRC Genk (live on Sport5 at 9:45 p.m.)