Mac Haifa, Hap TA both eye advancement

Greens take 2-0 first-leg advantage to Azerbaijan while Reds host Beroe with comfortable 4-1 lead.

Hapoel Tel Aviv vs PFC Beroe 370 (photo credit: Reuters and Maccabi Haifa website)
Hapoel Tel Aviv vs PFC Beroe 370
(photo credit: Reuters and Maccabi Haifa website)
Under tight security just a few kilometers from the Iranian border, Maccabi Haifa will look to seal its place in the Europa League third qualifying round when it visits Xazar Lankaran in Azerbaijan on Thursday, holding a 2-0 lead from last week’s first leg.
A sensational Hen Ezra (37) strike and an Alon Turgeman (55) effort gave the Greens a deserved win at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium last Thursday, but coach Arik Benado is far from complacent.
“We looked pretty good considering it was our first match of the season, but had we been more accurate in front of goal we could have won by a bigger margin,” said Benado.
“We have only won the first half of the tie and I hope that will prove enough for us to progress. But we are aiming to win in Lankaran as well.”
Haifa players and staff were ordered to stay in their hotel throughout their stay in Lankaran, with dozens of Israeli and local security officials keeping a watchful eye on the team.
Benado isn’t set to make many changes to the lineup which started last week, with captain Yaniv Katan expected to continue in the midfield after signing a three-year contract extension on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old is just 57 appearances away from breaking Alon Harazi’s all-time record at Haifa and needs just 12 more goals to pass Zahi Armeli as the club’s top scorer.
“I’m happy and proud to continue to be a part of Maccabi Haifa for the next three years,” said Katan, who has played for the club throughout his entire career apart from a sixmonth spell at English Premier League club West Ham United.
“I have been at this club for almost 25 years. Since I was eight this has not just been a soccer club to me, but a home.” The experienced Katan is taking nothing for granted ahead of Thursday’s return leg.
“We can’t allow ourselves to relax,” he said. “I’m pleased with the way we played in our first match of the season, especially as we will go on and improve. We faced an awkward opponent, but now everything depends on us.”
The first thing Haifa will do once it books its place in the next round will be to check the result of the tie between FK Ventspils of Latvia and Jeunesse Esch of Luxembourg, the winner of which is set to face the Greens. The Latvians claimed a 1-0 victory at home in the first leg.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will have one eye on the encounter between Levadia Tallinn of Estonia and Pandurii Târgu Jiu of Romania on Thursday, having already effectively guaranteed its place in the third qualifying round with a 4-1 win over PFC Beroe in Bulgaria last week.
Hapoel needed just nine minutes to all but clinch the tie. New Brazilian midfielder Lucas Sasha (5) and Omer Damari (9) opened an early two-goal cushion, and despite Ventsislav Hirstov’s strike (25), Damari (54) and Itay Shechter (60) ensured Thursday’s second leg at Bloomfield Stadium will be no more than a formality.
The second leg between Tallinn and Pandurii will kickoff at the same time as Hapoel’s match, with the first leg ending in a 0-0 draw in Estonia.
“We saw the great potential we all feel Hapoel has this season,” said coach Ran Ben-Shimon after the first leg. “Of course there is still plenty of work to be done, but if we continue this way there’s no doubt that this massive potential will be realized.”
Striker Itay Shechter preached caution ahead of Thursday’s match.
“You have to always respect your opponent and it isn’t over until it’s over,” he said. “We remain focused as we must get through this round.”
Bloomfield is expected to be almost full on Thursday, with Hapoel selling nearly 8,000 season tickets to date.
Maccabi Tel Aviv set a new local record after its fans bought over 10,000 season tickets. The yellowand- blue looks poised to sell out its entire stock of season tickets, ensuring Bloomfield will be all but full throughout the season.
Maccabi’s performance in the Champions League second qualifying round against Gyori ETO surely helped sales, with Tel Aviv dominating the Hungarian champion on the way to a 4-1 aggregate victory.
Maccabi will face a tough obstacle in Swiss champion Basel in the third qualifying round, but midfielder Eran Zahavi is optimistic regarding the yellow-and-blue’s chances.
“We didn’t think of Basel during the match and we put on a nice show. Now we can begin our preparations,” Zahavi said after Tuesday’s 2-1 second-leg triumph at Bloomfield.
“Basel is a big club by European standards and we will have to adjust our play for them. I don’t know if they are the favorites as I’ve yet to see them play, but I don’t feel like we are inferior entering the tie.”
Basel, which will host the first leg next Tuesday, has risen to prominence in Europe over recent seasons, reaching the last 16 of the Champions League at the expense of Manchester United in 2011/12 before going all the way to the Europa League semifinals last season.
“There is no need for me to talk much about Basel,” said Maccabi coach Paulo Sousa. “But I’m sure that they are also not very happy to have been drawn against this Maccabi team.”