Hapoel TA ready for Champ League opener

Hapoel visits Benfica in Portugal hoping to get campaign off to a bright start.

311_Hap TA (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Hap TA
(photo credit: Associated Press)
After seeing Maccabi Haifa’s Champions League dream turn into a nightmare last season, Hapoel Tel Aviv will be looking to begin the group stage on the right foot when it visits SL Benfica in Lisbon on Tuesday night.
Haifa became the first team in Champions League history to end the group stage without taking a point or scoring a goal last season, a distinction Hapoel has no intention of sharing with the Greens.
In fact, Tel Aviv believes it can become the first Israeli team to progress past the group stage of European soccer’s most prestigious competition. However, to have any realistic chance of reaching the last 16, it will need to pick up some points in its three road games, and there’s no better place to start than with its group opener at the Estadio da Luz.
While Hapoel has disappointingly won just one of its first three Premier League matches to date, drawing 2-2 at Hapoel Acre on Saturday, Benfica has struggled desperately in Portugal’s Liga, losing 2-1 to Vitoria de Guimaraes over the weekend, its third defeat in four league games.
However, despite its worst start to a top-flight campaign in 58 years, Benfica remains a firm favorite to get the better of Hapoel on Tuesday and coach Eli Gutman is extremely wary of his Portuguese opponents.
“I’m very excited,” Gutman said. “We are in the best league in the world and we want to represent ourselves and Israeli soccer with honor.
We will not change our style of play, but we know we can’t afford to make any mistakes against a team like Benfica.”
Hapoel will be beginning its first Champions League group campaign in club history after becoming only the third Israeli team to reach the group stage with a 4-3 playoff aggregate win over Red Bull Salzburg.
Benfica, on the other hand, enters this season’s competition with dreams of returning to its former glory, which includes triumphs in the European Champions Cup in 1961 and 1962.
Benfica is back in the Champions League after a two-year absence, and despite losing a couple of key players over the summer, it has spent heavily in the hope of building a squad which will reach the knockout phases of the competition for the first time in five years.
Argentine Angel di Maria and Brazilian Ramires left Benfica for Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, boosting the club’s bank account by more than 40 million euros.
However, Benfica has spent almost 34 million euros to bring in eight new players over the off-season, strengthening a team which already includes former Argentina internationals Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola as well as Brazil defender Luisao and Paraguay’s Oscar Cardozo, who was the Portuguese league’s top scorer last season with 26 goals.
“Hapoel Tel Aviv is a rising force in European soccer and was one of the teams I didn’t want to get in our group,” Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said. “We are very motivated for this match and we want to get the group stage off to a good start.”
Besides long-term injury absentee Maharan Lala, Gutman should have a full squad from which to pick his lineup, including Itai Shechter.
Hapoel’s top scorer from last season, who shined in the team’s 3-2 victory in Salzburg, hasn’t played since experiencing up a hamstring injury in Tel Aviv’s 1-0 defeat to Hapoel Haifa in its Premier League opener over three weeks ago.
However, he is expected to be fit for Tuesday’s match after going through Mariana Kovacevic’s placenta therapy in Serbia last week. The questionable treatment was recommended to Shechter by Israel teammate Yossi Benayoun, who visited Kovacevic’s clinic last season.
Shechter is expected to play up-front with Ben Sahar, with Hapoel’s midfield to likely include Gili Vermut, Romain Rocchi, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin.
Gutman has got a couple of dilemmas regarding his backfour.
Vincent Enyeama will play in goal yet again and Dedi Ben-Dayan will start on the left of the defense. But Gutman is still considering using Bevan Fransman alongside Douglas da Silva instead of Walid Badier and replacing Omri Kende with Danny Bondarv.
“Every player dreams of reaching the Champions League group stage,” Shechter said. “We are facing a tough opponent, but we will not give up without a fight and we are hoping to record a good result.”
In Group B’s other game, Lyon hosts Schalke.