Hapoel hopes to clear final hurdle

Reds face tougher Salzburg lineup than Haifa faced last year.

Itai Shechter (photo credit: Associated Press)
Itai Shechter
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Perhaps striker Ben Sahar put it best.
“Our moment of truth has arrived. This is what we’ve been waiting for,” he said.
“We set ourselves the target of reaching the playoffs, but clearly our dream is to advance to the Champions League group stage.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Red Bull Salzburg in the first leg of the Champions League playoffs on Wednesday night, with the group stage so near, yet still so far away.
Tel Aviv has already guaranteed itself an extended continental campaign even should it fail against Salzburg, as the loser of the playoff tie will be given a place in the group stage of the Europa League.
However, Hapoel has its sights set on reaching the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history and Sahar is confident the team can record a favorable result on Wednesday night ahead of the decisive return leg at Bloomfield Stadium next week.
“I think the chances are pretty much equal,” Sahar said. “We’ve already shown that when we play well we succeed. We will come to win the match, but we will be happy with any result which will mean the tie will be decided at Bloomfield.
Salzburg has some excellent players, but I prefer to focus on our play.”
Salzburg, which beat Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus 5-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round, has made several changes to its squad since its 5-1 aggregate defeat to Maccabi Haifa in last year’s playoffs.
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.
“We are facing a difficult road game against the champion of Austria,” Hapoel coach Eli Gutman said.
“Salzburg is a well-organized side, which is strong as a team and also has players with superb personal abilities. We will have to be at our best tactically and find the way for our players to display their talents if we are to succeed.”
Gutman is set to start with the same lineup that played in Tel Aviv’s 3-1 victory over FK Aktobe in the second leg of the third qualifying round.
Vincent Enyeama will continue in goal, with the regular back-four of Douglas da Silva, Walid Badier, Omri Kende and Dedi Ben-Dayan to be in charge of stifling the Austrians attack.
Gili Vermut, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin will take their place in the midfield yet again, with Yossi Shivhon to keep his place in the starting 11 ahead of Romain Rocchi.
Sahar and Itai Shechter will team-up in attack, but Hapoel will have few offensive options from the bench after Maharan Lala tore his cruciate ligament in the Toto Cup match against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Saturday and is set to miss at least the next six months.
“We know a lot about Hapoel Tel Aviv and we are well aware of its excellent matches in the Europa League last season,” Salzburg’s Dutch coach Huub Stevens said. “I think we have improved since last season and we have a lot of respect for Israeli soccer. We will have to make as few mistakes as possible and be confident in our own abilities.”
Hapoel’s only previous Champions League tie came in the 2000/01 second qualifying round when it was beaten both home and away by Austria’s SK Sturm Graz.
However, Hapoel has fared much better against Austrian opponents since, claiming a 4-1 aggregate victory over FC Kärnten in the 2002/03 UEFA Cup first round and beating SK Rapid Vienna twice in last season’s Europa League group stage: 5-1 at home and 3-0 away.
“We know Salzburg is a very strong team, but the coaching staff has prepared us well for this match,” Zehavi said. “We don’t feel any pressure. We are ready to record a good result and then decide the tie in Bloomfield.”