Hapoel will battle Red Bull Salzburg for a place in the group stage.
By ALLON SINAI
Hapoel Tel Aviv received no favors in the draw for the playoff round of the Champions League on Friday, being paired with Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in the battle for a place in the group stage.Meanwhile, later Friday, Maccabi Tel Aviv was drawn to face Paris Saint-Germain in the playoff round of the Europa League.After getting the better of FK Aktobe of Kazakhstan in the CL third qualifying round, Hapoel was once more handed the exact same opponent Maccabi Haifa faced last season on route to the group stage of European soccer’s most prestigious competition.Haifa outplayed the Austrians in last year’s playoffs, winning both home and away to claim a 5-1 aggregate victory, but Salzburg has improved significantly since.Dutch coach Huub Stevens was just a few weeks into his job when he guided his team against Haifa, but he has since molded the side and led it to a second straight league title and an impressive run in the Europa League.“We’ve been handed a very difficult draw, possibly the most difficult one we could have gotten,” said Hapoel assistant coach Yossi Abuksis about Salzburg, which reached the round of 32 of the Europa League last season after a perfect group stage, beating the likes of Spain’s Villarreal and Italy’s Lazio.“We will begin to study the Austrians immediately.We know we are facing a very strong team, stronger than the one Haifa beat last season. Our initial goal will be to return home with a good result from the first leg on the road.”Hapoel will visit the Red Bull Arena on August 17/18 before hosting the second leg on August 24/25.“We are expecting a tough match,” Stevens said.“Israeli soccer has proven its strength in the past and after last season we all know that there are strong teams in Israel.”Salzburg, which beat Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus 5-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round, has made several changes to its squad since last season.Top goal-scorer Marc Janko left for Holland’s Twente, but Argentinian Gonzalo Zarate and Uruguayan Joaquin Boghossian were brought in to strengthen the Austrians strike force, with David Mendes da Silva signed to bolster the side’s midfield.“At this stage every team wants to make it to the group stage and this will be our toughest obstacle yet,” Hapoel defender Douglas da Silva said.“Both sides have plenty to lose. You can’t take the Austrian champion lightly and I’m happy the second leg will be played at Bloomfield Stadium in front of our fans.”In UEFA’s second-level Europa League competition, Maccabi recorded its most significant achievement in European competition in more than five years on Thursday, beating Olympiacos 1-0 to knock out the Greek giant.The yellow-and-blue avoided the likes of Liverpool and Juventus among others in Friday’s draw and will believe in its chances against the Persians.PSG’s star-studded squad includes the likes of Claude Makelele, Ludovic Giuly and Mateja Kezman, but the team only finished in 13th position in the French league last season, qualifying for the Europa League after winning the Coupe de France.“This is a tough draw, but Olympiacos was also a tough draw and we handled it honorably,” Maccabi manager Avi Nimni said. “We will do our best and prepare appropriately for the tie with Paris St. Germain.”
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