Hapoel TA looks to finish on high note

Reds still have a chance to climb out of Group B cellar with win in Lyon and some help.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Hapoel Tel Aviv will be playing for more than pride when it wraps up its debut Champions League campaign on Tuesday night with a visit to Olympique Lyon at the Stade de Gerland.
Tel Aviv may have lost all hope of advancing to the last 16 of European soccer’s most prestigious competition over a month ago. However, on Tuesday it will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of the Maccabi Haifa side which finished in third position in Group F of the Champions League in the 2002/03 season, the last and only Israeli club to date to avoid last place in its group and progress to the round of 32 of the Europa League.
For that to happen, Hapoel will need to record one of the greatest victories in local soccer history over Lyon, as well as for SL Benfica to fall to Schalke 04 in Portugal.
After beating Benfica 3-0 at Bloomfield Stadium two weeks ago for its first-ever win in the competition, Tel Aviv will be under little pressure at Lyon, something star midfielder Gili Vermut is hoping will work to his team’s advantage.
“This will be the toughest match we have faced so far,” Vermut said. “We only have a small chance of climbing to third position, but we will still do our best to first and foremost avoid defeat. Clearly, we will have to defend a lot, but we have nothing to lose from this match. In the first round of matches we paid the price for our inexperience, but we have since picked up four points and now we have the belief and confidence to succeed.”
Besides the suspended Dedi Ben- Dayan, who will be replaced on the left side of the defense by Gal Shish, Hapoel coach Eli Gutman has a full squad from which to pick his starting lineup.
“It is not simple to play in Lyon, but we are hoping for the best and we want to advance to the Europa League,” Gutman said. “I have a feeling Benfica will beat Schalke, but we still expect from ourselves to play a good match.”
Israeli clubs have lost 10 of 11 Champions League road matches to date, with Hapoel looking to become the first local side to avoid defeat away from home in the competition since Haifa drew 3-3 at Olympiacos on November 13, 2002.
“Lyon needs the points to finish in first position, but we also want the points and we have come to France to get a result,” said defender Walid Badier, who scored Haifa’s opener in its draw in Greece eight years ago.
“Our goal is to win and only then will we check what Benfica did.”
Despite falling to its second straight group defeat, Lyon secured its progress to the last 16 two weeks ago thanks to Hapoel’s win over Benfica.
The seven-time French champions, who beat Tel Aviv 3-1 at Bloomfield, have shown consistent improvement in local league play in recent weeks, with much of the credit going to striker Lisandro Lopez.
The Argentine has settled his differences with coach Claude Puel, and after a tumultuous start to the season which saw the club slip into the relegation zone, Lyon has climbed to fifth in the standings, just two points behind leader Lille after Lopez scored twice in a 2-1 win over Montpellier this weekend.
The victory extended Lyon’s unbeaten run in the league to nine matches.
“Now we are qualified for the Champions League knockout stages, why not take first place in the group this week?” Lyon and France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said. “The most important thing is for us to focus until the end of the year. The players have been far from blameless for the poor performances on the field, so we’ll try to ramp them up.”
Lyon will be without France playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, who injured his right heel in last month’s 3-0 loss to Schalke and will miss a third consecutive game. Midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, who didn’t play at Montpellier with a thigh injury, trained normally on Sunday and could make his return against Hapoel.

AP contributed to this report