Hapoel TA looking to punish Atletico Madrid

Atletico visits Bloomfield without Falcao, while K8 opens Europa League at Bilbao.

HAPOEL TEL AVIV 370 (photo credit: Tzvika Halperin/Hapoel Tel Aviv website)
(photo credit: Tzvika Halperin/Hapoel Tel Aviv website)
The return to the sideline of coach Nitzan Shirazi and the absence of five Atletico Madrid starters, including star striker Falcao, have given Hapoel Tel Aviv an unexpected boost ahead of its Europa League Group B opener at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night.
Hapoel will still be a clear underdog against last season’s Europa League champion, but coach Diego Simeone’s decision to leave Falcao, captain Gabi, Arda Turan, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis in Spain, means Tel Aviv has been handed a glimmer of hope to record a massive upset at Bloomfield.
Shirazi returned to the Hapoel bench for Saturday’s 2-0 Premier League win over Bnei Yehuda for the first time since undergoing serious head surgery just over two weeks ago and he will be back to full capacity on Thursday.
“Hapoel is always optimistic ahead of its European matches and that has nothing to do with Simeone’s decision to rotate his squad for this match,” said Shirazi in his first press conference since his health scare.
“I’d rather Falcao didn’t play, but they have so many good players and we need to respect all of them. However, we should not fear them.”
Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic hosts Adademica de Coimbra of Portugal in Group B’s other match on Thursday and Shirazi admitted that Hapoel has got its sights set on a second-place finish and progress to the round of 32.
“We were in the second seeding pot in the draw and we want to advance past this stage,” Shirazi said.
“The squad we built is good enough to compete for a place in the next stage and I hope the match against Atletico will be a memorable one for all the good reasons.”
Shirazi, whose team has won all three of its Premier League matches to date, refused to go into details regarding his health situation.
“My personal situation is very complex and this isn’t the time or the place to talk about it,” he said.
“I just want to thank everyone for all the support I was given. I’m very happy to be back to my old routine. This is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Atletico has picked up seven of a possible nine points from its first three La Liga matches, scoring four goals in each of its last three encounters in all competitions, including a 4-1 victory over Chelsea in the European Super Cup.
“I know all about Hapoel and I think they will give us a good fight,” said Simeone, who will be hoping his team can claim its 14th straight victory in European competition.
“We have a big squad and I want to give different players some minutes so I’ll know that when I really need them they will be ready.
“Regardless of who plays our target is to win this match. We are not here to put on a show, we are here to win.”
Also Thursday, Ironi Kiryat Shmona opens its account in Europa League Group I with a visit to Athletic Bilbao.
Bilbao lost to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final last season, but has struggled in La Liga so far in 2012/13, winning just one of its first four matches, conceding a total of 12 goals.
However, Marcelo Bielsa’s side will still be an overwhelming favorite against Gili Landau’s Kiryat Shmona, which is playing in its first continental group match after suffering a 1-0 loss to Maccabi Netanya in league action on Saturday.
“We understand that Bilbao plays at a different level to us, but we to have also got something to offer,” Landau said.
“We need to know how to make the switch from the league to Europe because every match presents a different challenge.”