Hapoel hosts Aktobe for key game

Dream of reaching group stage for first time hanging in the balance.

311_Hapoel TA (photo credit: Hapoel Tel Aviv website)
311_Hapoel TA
(photo credit: Hapoel Tel Aviv website)
The start of the Premier League season may still be more than two weeks away, but Hapoel Tel Aviv will face its first moment of truth in the 2010/2011 campaign on Tuesday night.
After suffering a disappointing 1-0 defeat to FK Aktobe in the first leg of the Champions League third qualifying round in Kazakhstan last week, Hapoel finds itself with its back against the wall and with its dream of reaching the group stage for the first time in club history in serious jeopardy.
The loss in Kazakhstan was Tel Aviv’s first in all competition in almost six months.
Hapoel is undefeated in local competition in 2010, winning the league title and the State Cup. Until last week, Eli Gutman’s club hadn’t suffered the taste of defeat since February 18 when it fell 3-0 to Rubin Kazan in the round of 32 of the Europa League.
Nevertheless, Gutman claimed on Monday that he has absolutely no concerns regarding his players’ ability to overturn the deficit against Aktobe and advance to the playoffs, the final qualifying round before the group stage.
“We had our backs against the wall several times last season and our fans were there to give us a push and we repaid them,” Gutman said. “Our supporters can’t wait for the match to start and I’m certain they will give us the backing we need.”
Gutman believes his side deserved to get something out of the first leg, but even at the current state of affairs, he feels the tie is still truly in Hapoel’s hands.
“The first leg result is problematic and we are playing a good team with good players in key positions,” Gutman added. “But we will be focused and if we play our game and with the help of god we will be okay.”
Gutman is expected to make at least two changes to the line-up that started in Kazakhstan.
Vincent Enyeama will continue in goal and, together with the regular back-four of Douglas da Silva, Walid Badier, Omri Kende and Dedi Ben-Dayan, will have the crucial role of keeping a clean sheet on Tuesday night.
Should Aktobe score a single goal, Hapoel would need three goals to progress, a scenario the Reds will be desperate to avoid.
Gili Vermut, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin will take their place in the midfield once again, while Yossi Shivhon will likely return to the starting 11 after Romain Rocchi’s mediocre performance last week.
Ben Sahar, who made his debut as a substitute for Hapoel last week, is set to start for the side for the first time on Tuesday, teaming-up with Itai Shechter, who is still searching for his first goal of the season.
Gutman has a methodical game-plan for Tuesday and is optimistic his players will know how to execute it and take a significant step towards the group stage.
“The key will be to pressure the ball and to not expose ourselves in the back,” Gutman said. “The most important thing will be to find the right balance between attacking and defending.
As long as the players channel their motivation in the right direction and maintain their focus they will get the job done on the field.”
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs FK Aktobe (live at 9:00 p.m. on Sport 1)