Greens get unlucky by drawing Genk

Mac Haifa set to host Barda & Co. next week in first leg of CL playoffs; Hap TA to face Ekranas, Mac TA has to handle Panathinaikos in Europa.

idan vered maccabi haifa_311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
idan vered maccabi haifa_311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Haifa was paired with the one opponent it was hoping to avoid on Friday when it was drawn to face Belgian champion KRC Genk for a place in the Champions League group stage.
Haifa, which eked out a 3-2 aggregate victory over NK Maribor in the third qualifying round, was crossing its fingers to be drawn against the likes of Sturm Graz of Austria or Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic.
However, the Greens didn’t get their wish in Friday’s draw in Nyon, Switzerland, and will need to overcome the tough obstacle presented by their former striker Elyaniv Barda and Genk to reach the group stage of European soccer’s most prestigious competition for the second time in three seasons.
“This is a very tough draw against an excellent team,” Haifa captain Yaniv Katan said. “We will have to learn all about them and make sure we are in the best possible shape.”
Haifa will host the first leg at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on August 16/17, with the return leg to be played in Belgium the following week.
Maccabi Tel Aviv was also handed a difficult draw on Friday when it was paired with Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos in the Europa League playoffs.
Pana, which finished as runner- up to Olympiacos last season, dropped to the Europa League playoffs after being stunned by Denmark’s Odense BK in the Champions League third qualifying round, losing the second leg 4-3 at home after drawing 1-1 on the road the previous week.
“Clearly we face two very difficult matches against a team which played in the group stage of the Champions League in recent years,” said Maccabi coach Moti Ivanir, whose team advanced to the playoffs with an emphatic 8-0 aggregate victory over FK Zeljeznicar.
“We are facing a big challenge and we will do all we can to come through it successfully.”
Panathinaikos has played in the group stage of the Champions League or the Europa League in each of the past eight seasons, but the economic crisis in Greece has taken its toll on its squad, with stars Djibril Cisse, Sidney Govou and Gilberto Silva all leaving this summer.
Maccabi will host the first leg at Bloomfield Stadium on August 18, with the return leg to be played the following week.
Hapoel Tel Aviv should have the easiest time of the three Israeli clubs after being drawn to play Lithuanian champion FK Ekranas in the Europa League playoffs.
However, Hapoel will need to register a significant improvement from last Thursday’s performance in the humbling 2-1 defeat to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz to have any chance against Ekranas, which lost 3-1 on aggregate to Belarus’s BATE Borisov in the Champions League third qualifying round. Hapoel will visit the Lithuanians in the first leg before hosting the second leg at Bloomfield.
Haifa is already guaranteed continental soccer at least until mid-December regardless of the outcome against Genk, as the losers in the playoffs will be granted a place in the Europa League group stage.
With a long European campaign to come and many of its frailties being exposed against Maribor, Greens coach Elisha Levy is looking to add to his squad before Monday’s deadline for the playoff round.
“We all know that there are no easy draws. This is a topclass European team with a big budget,” said Levy, who is aiming to sign Hapoel Acre defender Itzik Cohen and Israeli international midfielder Tamir Cohen over the next couple of days.
“I hope we can bring in two or three more players, one of them being Tamir Cohen.
You must remember that this is a complicated situation as there are not that many Israeli players who can play at this level.”
Genk, which advanced to the playoffs with a tight 3-2 aggregate victory over Serbian champion Partizan Belgrade, won the Belgian title 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.
Nevertheless, Franky Vercauteren’s side will pose a serious threat to Haifa. Genk has a dangerous mixture of youth and experience, with the likes of Belgian youngsters Kevin De Bruyn, Jelle Vossen and Marvin Ogunjimi combined with foreigners like Barda, who scored 14 league goals last season.
“This was the draw I was hoping to avoid,” said Barda, who played for Haifa for three seasons (2002-2005) before joining Hapoel Tel Aviv from which he moved on to Genk in 2007.
“I was hoping to meet Haifa in the group stage, but at least I can console myself in the knowledge that one of the teams will be there. I think both teams have a 50 percent chance of progressing.”
In the League route, Arsenal was handed a tough draw against Serie A team Udinese, while Olympique Lyon was paired with Rubin Kazan.
Bayern Munich got off relatively lightly with a tie against Swiss side FC Zurich, with former European champion Benfica to play Twente Enschede and Spain’s Villarreal pitted against Odense.