Hapoel TA on verge of greatness

Reds hope to have Shechter for critical playoff match vs Salzburg.

HAPOEL TEL AVIV 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Tel Aviv is on the brink of history, but one last obstacle still remains.
Last week’s 3-2 road victory at Red Bull Salzburg in the first leg of the Champions League playoffs brought Hapoel within touching distance of the group stage of European soccer’s most prestigious competition.
However, with such a big prize waiting, no one in Tel Aviv is celebrating just yet.
Complacency and euphoria have been warded off, with Hapoel desperate to clinch an aggregate victory in the return leg at Bloomfield Stadium on Tuesday night to qualify for the group stage for the first time in club history.
“We are proud to be taking part in the playoffs, but as I said before the first leg, we have no intention of settling for this,” said Hapoel coach Eli Gutman, whose side has already guaranteed itself an extended continental campaign, with the losers in the playoffs to be given a place in the Europa League group stage.
“We have put the first leg behind us and are treating this match independently. We will need 90 minutes of composure, tactical discipline and individual skill to succeed.”
After last Wednesday’s impressive win, Hapoel dropped to a humbling 1-0 defeat at Hapoel Haifa in its Premier League 2010/11 opener on Saturday. More importantly, however, it also lost starstriker Itai Shechter to injury.
Gutman made five changes to the lineup that beat Salzburg, but with his team trailing, he could not resist the temptation of introducing Shechter from the bench and paid the price when the striker limped off the pitch.
Initially, there were concerns Shechter may have torn a muscle in his right leg and would be out for several weeks. However, it ended up proving to be no more than a strain and he may be fit for Tuesday’s encounter after going through extensive treatment.
“We are all praying he will be fit,” said Gutman, who was outraged with himself after his decision to play Shechter on Saturday ended up back firing.
“He has a 50-50 chance of playing and he told me he would do whatever he can to take part. He’s a significant player, but we will have to find a way to overcome his absence if he fails to recover.”
One player who will certainly be missing from Hapoel’s lineup is midfielder Yossi Shivhon, who is suspended after picking up a yellow card in the first leg.
Frenchman Romain Rocchi is expected replace him and will team-up in the midfield with Gili Vermut, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin, who were all superb in Austria.
Vincent Enyeama will stand between the posts once more, with the regular back-four of Douglas da Silva, Walid Badier, Omri Kende and Dedi Ben-Dayan to start as usual.
If Shechter passes a fitness test he will start up-front with Ben Sahar, who has scored in Hapoel’s last two continental matches, with Gutman considering a tactical change should the 23- year-old fail to recover.
“We are mulling several options should Shechter miss out, but injuries are part of the game and you have to overcome them,” Gutman said.
Salzburg will also make at least two changes to last week’s lineup, with defender Franz Schiemer and midfielder Jakob Jantscher both suspended.
However, Red Bull coach Huub Stevens believes his team can overturn last week’s loss, even though a 1-0 or 2-1 victory would still see Hapoel advance on away goals.
“If we don’t believe in our chances there is no point in flying to Tel Aviv,” the Dutch coach said.
“My players believe we have a chance and that is the most important thing. We are facing a difficult task, but not an impossible one.”
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv remains a firm favorite to reach the group stage and midfielder Zehavi is confident the team will complete its progress on Tuesday night.
“This is the club’s most important match in recent years and we are ready for it,” Zehavi said.
“The group stage has been our goal since the start of the season. We have all been dreaming of this. We were all excited to hear the Champions League anthem in Austria last week and we want to hear it many more times in the coming months.”
In other Israeli soccer news, Hapoel Beersheba claimed a 1-0 victory at Maccabi Petah Tikva in the final match of the of the first weekend of the Premier League 2010/11 season.
Lior Asulin scored the winner with a diving header in the last minute of stoppage time.