Hapoel seeks 1st points as Schalke visits TA

Shechter-less Reds will try to take advantage of forward-looking Germans.

Eli Gutman 311 (photo credit: AP)
Eli Gutman 311
(photo credit: AP)
Now that Hapoel Tel Aviv has its Premier League title defense back on track, coach Eli Gutman is determined for his team to finally get its Champions League campaign off the mark when its hosts Schalke 04 at Bloomfield Stadium on Tuesday night.
Hapoel is currently languishing at the bottom of Group B of European soccer’s premier competition with zero points and a combined goal difference of 2-8 after its first three matches.
However, after climbing into fourth position in the local standings with its fourth straight victory on Saturday, Gutman believes his side can finally collect an historic Champions League point on Tuesday – something an Israeli club hasn’t done in the group stage since Maccabi Tel Aviv drew 1-1 with Juventus on December 8, 2004.
“We are beginning our second round of group matches and clearly our goal is to pick up points,” Gutman said at Bloomfield on Monday.
“We must focus on our defensive play, because we are letting in too many goals both in Israel and Europe. If we improve this stat we will have a much better chance of taking points.”
Hapoel will be without its best player on Tuesday, with star-striker Itai Shechter, who scored Tel Aviv’s consolation goal in the 3-1 defeat at Schalke two weeks ago, still nursing the slight tear in his right thigh he suffered last week.
Toto Tamuz, who scored twice in Hapoel’s 3-2 victory over Hapoel Beersheba on Saturday, is expected to partner with Ben Sahar up front, but Gutman is considering changing his regular team tactics for Tuesday.
The coach hinted that he may start with three center-backs, with Bevan Fransman joining Douglas da Silva and Walid Badier at the heart of the defense.
“Following the first round of matches, I am considering changing our system of play,” said Gutman, who will also be without midfielder Avihai Yadin. “Regardless, we need to keep a closer eye on Schalke’s strikers, while not allowing our opponents space. We need to base our play as much as possible on counter attacks.”
Gutman believes his team can overcome the absence of Shechter.
“Of course Shechter is a key player for Hapoel,” he said. “But we showed quality without him against Beersheba, with Sahar and Tamuz playing a good match.”
However, as important as the play of Hapoel’s strike force will be, the team will first and foremost need to avoid conceding an early goal.
Tel Aviv’s defense was breached by Benfica 21 minutes into its Champions League debut, while Lyon took just seven minutes to get on the board against Hapoel.
Schalke’s first goal against Hapoel two weeks ago came with the match less than three minutes old, and Tel Aviv knows it will have little chance of getting a result should it fail to keep a clean sheet for at least the first half of Tuesday’s encounter.
Schalke is currently far more concerned with its domestic campaign.
The Germans’ league form is increasingly worrying coach Felix Magath after Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against Bayer Leverkusen left it second from bottom of the Bundesliga.
“The defeat is a bitter pill to swallow,” he said. “In the Champions League and in the DFB Cup it’s going well for us, but not in the Bundesliga for some unknown reason.”
Magath appeared to be more worried with reversing the team’s domestic slide.
“I am not really happy about this trip in the middle of the week and I consider the match on Friday against St. Pauli to be more important,” Magath said.
Germany defender Christoph Metzelder is mystified by the lack of form and fears “it’s getting worse.”
“Our league position isn’t great, but we want to advance in the Champions League,” Metzelder said. “Hapoel has proven it has good players and I’m certain that in front of its fans it can get a result. We hope Hapoel won’t get its first points at our expense.”
Schalke is without midfielders Jermaine Jones (ankle) and Hao Junmin (appendectomy) and defender Lukas Schmitz (hip), in addition to longterm injured Alexander Baumjohann and Nicolas Plestan.
Magath also has problems in attack.
Although Raul scored twice in the 3-1 home win against Hapoel, the 33-year-old former Spain striker has found it harder going in the Bundesliga with only one goal in 10 games.
After scoring in eight consecutive games for club and country, Netherlands forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s goals have dried up completely in the last four games.
In Group B’s other game, Lyon can forget its domestic troubles and guarantee itself a place in the knockout round of the Champions League with a fourth straight win when it faces Benfica in Lisbon.