Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv in action as first round of UEFA Cup gets under way

haifa 88 (photo credit: )
haifa 88
(photo credit: )
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will be looking to take a significant step towards the group stage of the UEFA Cup on Thursday night when they play their first legs of the first round. The Israeli teams will be confident against their Eastern European opposition. Haifa will "host" Litex Lovech of Bulgaria in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and is desperate for a big win ahead of the away leg in two weeks. Tel Aviv visits Chornomorets Odessa in the Ukraine and will be pleased with any result that transfers the fate of the tie to the second leg. Hapoel needs to recover from its collapse against Betar Jerusalem in Sunday's Premier League match and is expected to start the same 11 against Odessa as it did at Teddy Stadium. The team will likely learn on Thursday if it will be able to host its home leg in Tel Aviv, as UEFA is expected to make an announcement regarding the playing of European matches in Israel. "This is only the first half of the tie," Hapoel coach Yitzhak Schum said. "I hope we will get good news on Thursday that tells us that our second leg will be played in Israel." A new decision from UEFA will come too late for Haifa, and the team will have to get the job done in its adopted home in the Netherlands. Haifa is expected to have two changes from the lineup that faced Ashdod SC over the weekend. Alain Masudi returns from injury and Ravid Gazal replaces Brazilian Anderson Xavier, who is not fully fit. Despite winning on Saturday, Maccabi was far from its best and its recent form will not be good enough for a UEFA match. "Obviously, we need to improve," Haifa veteran defender Alon Harazi said. "We are not disillusioning ourselves that the way we played in our last few matches will be good enough. It is only the beginning of the season and I hope we will improve with time." Litex reached the first round of the UEFA Cup after going through two qualifying stages in which it beat Slovenia's Koper and Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus. "They are a good team which played in the group stage of the UEFA Cup last season," Haifa coach Roni Levy stressed. "They have got good players and we are not taking them lightly. Every opponent in European competition is difficult and we need to treat the match seriously." Tevez, Mascherano set to get first taste of UEFA Cup Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano are only just getting used to life in the English Premier League. Now they get their first taste of European competition. After the most surprising move of the transfer window, the two Argentinian stars are set to line up for West Ham on Thursday when the Hammers return to Europe for the first time in six years. Acquired from Brazilian club Corinthians, striker Tevez and defensive midfielder Mascherano have to adjust to the fast pace of the Premier League before they can make an impact in England. So far, only Tevez has pulled on the famous claret and blue shirt for a game, and that was for 30 minutes as a substitute in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. The fact that they are now on the roster of a club which has never won the league in its 106-year history shows that the Hammers - a European Cup Winners Cup champion 41 years ago - has the ambition to match the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. "The Argentines are the cream on top of the cake and, hopefully, they can take us forward to the next level," said West Ham manager Alan Pardew, who hopes that his team will capture a healthy first-leg lead against Sicilian club Palermo at Upton Park on Thursday. Palermo has few title successes in its history but is emerging as a force in Serie A with defenders Cristian Zaccardo and Andrea Barzagli from Italy's World Cup winning squad as well as Australia's Mark Bresciano. With most of Europe's powerhouse teams engaged in the more prestigious Champions League, European soccer's second tier competition has few eyecatching matchups among the 40 games scheduled for Thursday. Defending champion Sevilla is unbeaten in 14 domestic and UEFA Cup games as it goes to unheralded Greek club Atromitos while Ajax Amsterdam, four-time European Cup winner which lost in the Champions League qualifying round, goes to Norway's IK Start. Many of the clubs in action from the big leagues have been living in the shadows of the powerhouse teams for decades and now have the chance to capture a big trophy. Parma won the UEFA Cup seven years ago and goes to Russia's Rubin Kazan while another Serie A team, Livorno, hosts Austria's Pasching. Chievo visits Portugal's Braga in the first leg. Of the other Spanish clubs in action, Espanyol, always in the shadow of crosstown rival Barcelona, goes to Slovakia's Artmedia Bratislava, which surprisingly reached the group stage of the Champions League last season. Osasuna visits Turkey's Trabzonspor and Celta Vigo travels to Belgium's Standard Liege. It's been five years since a German club won a European tournament - Bayern Munich in the 2001 Champions League - and four Bundesliga teams are trying to capture the UEFA Cup for their country for the first time since Schalke nine seasons ago. Two of them face teams from Denmark, Eintracht Frankfurt hosting Brondby and Hertha Berlin taking on OB Odense. Bayer Leverkusen visits Switzerland's Sion and Schalke meets French club Nancy. English clubs were runners-up in both last season's cup finals in Europe - Arsenal to Champions League winner Barcelona and Middlesbrough to Sevilla in the UEFA Cup. Now Newcastle goes to Estonia's Levadia, Blackburn visits Red Bull Salzburg and Tottenham travels to Slavia Prague.