Israel’s European contenders learn their next foes

Projected lineup: Hap TA-Aktobe, Mac Haifa-Minsk, Maccabi-Olympiacos and Bnei Yehuda-Juventus.

Maccabi 311 (photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv Web site)
Maccabi 311
(photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv Web site)
Hapoel Tel Aviv’s campaign to reach the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history will likely have to go through Kazakhstan after the Reds were paired on Friday with the winner of the second qualifying round tie between Kazakh champion FK Aktobe and FC Olimpi Rustavi of Georgia.
Hapoel all but booked its place in the third qualifying round last week after thrashing Bosnian club FK Zeljeznicar 5-0 in the first leg of the second round at Bloomfield Stadium.
Tel Aviv should officially secure its progress when it visits Sarajevo for the return leg on Wednesday, and with Aktobe beating Rustavi 2-0 in the first leg of its tie, it seems all but certain Eli Gutman’s men will soon be paying a visit to Kazakhstan.
Should Aktobe advance as expected, it will be facing the Israeli champion in the qualifiers for a second straight season. Last year, the Kazakhs drew 0-0 at home with Maccabi Haifa before taking a stunning 3-0 lead after 15 minutes at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium.
However, the Greens fought back to claim a 4-3 victory before eventually reaching the group stage with a 5-1 aggregate win over Red Bull Salzburg.
“First we must finish the job in Bosnia and that is what we are focusing on for the moment,” Hapoel midfielder Gili Vermut said. “We saw the Kazakhs against Haifa last year and they gave them a real tough time. We can’t take them lightly.
“The coaching staff will prepare us for the match in the same way it did for the Bosnians and we will be ready.”
Aktobe’s only advantage against Hapoel will be the fact that it is currently entering the closing stages of its local season.
Russian coach Vladimir Mukhanov’s team, which has won three straight championships, is currently in fourth position in the Kazakh league, four points from the top, after winning nine, drawing four and losing five of its 18 matches to date.
Rustavi is making just its third ever appearance in European competition this season, and despite holding its own in Kazakhstan last week, will be the clear underdog in the second leg in Georgia after failing to score on the road.
Hapoel will play the first leg of the third qualifying round on the road on either July 27 or 28, with the return leg to be played at Bloomfield the following week.
The third qualifying round is followed by a two-legged playoff from which the winner will advance to the group stage.
Hapoel will be among the seeded teams should it reach the playoff round, ensuring it will not face the same cruel fate as Tel Aviv’s two other Premier League teams, who were handed tough opponents in Nyon, Switzerland on Friday after being unseeded in the Europa League’s third qualifying round draw.
Bnei Yehuda, which drew 1- 1 with Shamrock Rovers in Dublin on Thursday, was drawn to play Italian powerhouse Juventus in the third qualifying round, while Maccabi Tel Aviv faces a daunting tie against Greek giant Olympiacos.
Juventus, a 27-time Italian champion and twice a Champions League winner, is beginning its European campaign far earlier than it is accustomed to after finishing in a bitterly disappointing seventh place in the Serie A last season.
Bnei Yehuda led for much of its first leg in the Irish capital after Omri Afek scored the opener in the 26th minute. However, substitute Robert Bayly equalized in the first minute of stoppage time and seriously complicated Bnei Yehuda’s situation.
The teams meet again at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday.
Maccabi beat FK Mogren 2- 0 in its first leg at home and should have little trouble securing its place in the next round in Montenegro on Thursday.
Olympiacos, which failed to claim the Greek championship last season after taking the local league title in 11 of the previous 12 years, beat Albania’s FK Besa 5-0 in the first leg of its second round tie.
Maccabi Haifa, which will begin its continental campaign in the Europa League’s third round, will in all likelihood play Dinamo Minsk after the Belarusians beat JK Sillamae Kalev 5-1 in the first leg of the second round.
Haifa and Bnei Yehuda were drawn to host the first leg on July 29, with Tel Aviv to visit the Greek capital in the opening encounter of its tie. The second legs will be played a week later.
“Minsk seems to be a good side and we will do our utmost to learn all about it in the two weeks we have until the first leg,” said Haifa captain Yaniv Katan.
“We will do our very best to prepare for the match and progress to the playoff round.”