Mac Haifa hopes to keep rolling in Latvia

Greens visit Ventspils in Europa qualifier while Hapoel Tel Aviv faces Padurii in first leg.

Maccabi Haifa's Rayo 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Haifa's Rayo 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
After steamrolling its way to the Europa League third qualifying round in record-breaking manner, Maccabi Haifa will look to keep the momentum rolling when it visits FK Ventspils in the first leg in Latvia on Thursday night.
Haifa crushed Xazar Lankaran 8-0 in Azerbaijan last week, registering the biggest win ever for an Israeli team in European competition.
The previous record was 6-0, achieved twice by Maccabi Tel Aviv and once by Haifa. The Greens also equaled the record for the largest aggregate triumph by an Israeli side, winning 10-0 over the two legs after claiming a 2-0 home victory.
Ventspils should pose more of a threat to Haifa, but Arik Benado’s men are still entering the tie as firm favorites.
Benado has been trying to bring his players back down to earth all week, but there was never any danger of veteran midfielder Gustavo Boccoli getting carried away.
“I don’t remember ever winning 8-0, but it will be irrelevant if we don’t continue to progress in Europe,” said the 35-year-old Boccoli.
“Ventspils is a very physical team and we will need to get the job done on the road. We are a better team than we were last season.”
Ventspils secured its progress last week with a 5-1 aggregate win over Jeunesse Esch of Luxembourg, winning the second leg on the road 4-1.
Should Haifa overcome the Latvians, it is expected to also be seeded in the draw for the playoff round, the final obstacle before the group stage.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will also be seeded in the playoffs, assuming it first gets the better of Pandurii Târgu Jiu of Romania.
Hapoel was held to a disappointing 2-2 draw with PFC Beroe of Bulgaria in the second leg of the second qualifying round at Bloomfield Stadium last week. However, it still advanced with ease after winning 4-1 away from home.
Striker Omer Damari, who scored two goals in each of the matches versus Beroe, claimed that the emphatic first-leg win affected the team’s performance at home.
“It is difficult to play with the same motivation after winning 4-1,” he explained. “We may have been slightly complacent, but we are only human. I hope that against Pandurii we will look better because they have a good team. Our goal is to reach the group stage and I believe we will accomplish it.”
Pandurii defeated Levadia Tallinn of Estonia 4-0 last week after drawing 0-0 in the first leg. Nevertheless, the Reds will have no excuse should they falter against the Romanian team, which is playing in European competition for the first time this season.
“I don’t think we are the favorites,” insisted Hapoel coach Ran Ben-Shimon. “We are still at the early stages of the season and there’s no doubt that the Romanian league runner- up will be a dangerous opponent for us.”
While Haifa and Tel Aviv would be extremely disappointed should they fail to reach the group stage, not to mention the playoff round, Hapoel Ramat Gan wants to first and foremost enjoy its Europa League experience.
Despite being relegated to the National League last season, Ramat Gan booked its place in continental competition by surprisingly lifting the State Cup.
Ramat Gan will begin its European adventure at GD Estoril-Praia of Portugal, which amazingly has even less continental experience than its opponent.
While Ramat Gan also played one UEFA Cup tie in 2003/04 following its first stunning cup triumph, Estoril- Praia will be participating in European competition for the first time on Thursday after finishing in an impressive fifth place in the Portuguese league last season.
“There is a clear gap in quality between the sides, but we are aiming to record a positive result,” said new Ramat Gan coach Arik Gilrovich, who will have almost none of last season’s players at his disposal.
“We want to advance even though no one is giving us a chance. Even though we are playing away from home I’m not going to lower the expectations. I always want to win, but a draw would also be a good result for us. This is a chance of a lifetime for us.”