New-look Haifa set to kick off campaign

Greens host Bosnian champ Borac Banja Luka in first leg of 2nd qualifying round.

Maccabi Haifa striker Vladimir Dvalishvili 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Haifa striker Vladimir Dvalishvili 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
There are more question marks than answers at Maccabi Haifa as the Greens begin their campaign to reach the Champions League group stage for the second time in three years when they host Bosnian champion FK Borac Banja Luka in the first leg of the second qualifying round at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Wednesday.
For a second straight season, Haifa is going to have to rebuild the backbone of its team, with Premier League player of the season Lior Rafaelov (Club Brugge), Tomer Hemed (RCD Mallorca), Peter Masilela (Leicester City) and Arik Benado (retirement) all leaving the squad which lifted the club’s fifth championship in eight years in May.
Haifa successfully found players to fill the boots of Dekel Keinan, Jorge Teixeira, Biram Kiyal and Shlomi Arbeitman last season, but it faces a completely different challenge this time around.
Last season, the team didn’t have crucial Champions League qualifying matches to play at the start of July, allowing coach Elisha Levy to tinker with his squad and test different lineups almost until the middle of the campaign.
Levy has no such luxury this season and knows that his team will have to find its form very quickly if it’s to reach the group stage for the third time ever and make amends for becoming the first team in competition history to end the first stage without collecting a point or scoring a goal in 2009/10.
“We first must reach the group stage if we are to have the chance to make up for two seasons ago,” Levy said. “We must not forget that there is a long way to go until the group stage. We face a tough match against the Bosnians and that is our focus.”
Levy, whose team is also set to be among the seeds in the third qualifying round and the playoffs of the competition, believes Haifa can open a significant lead on Wednesday that will allow it to travel to Bosnia for next Wednesday’s return leg in a calm state of mind.
“I really hope that we open a big margin,” Levy said. “We are facing an experienced and physical side and I’m sure it will be a difficult match. But I hope we know what to do to win at home and take the initiative from the start.”
Banja Luka won its first ever Bosnian championship in 2010/11 and in its only European tie in the past 20 years last season, was knocked out by Swiss club Lausanne-Sport in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
However, coach Zvezdan Cvetkovic is confident that his team can leave Israel with a result which will give it a chance to advance next week.
“The most important thing for us is that we don’t fear Haifa,” Cvetkovic said. “Our goal is to record a good result in Israel, which would be to avoid defeat. We are coming with a lot of optimism and we don’t plan to sit back in defense.”
Only two of Haifa’s five new signings are expected to start on Wednesday, with Croatian Jurica Buljat to take his place alongside Andriy Pylyavskyi in the center of the defense and striker Wiyam Amashe likely to start up front with Vladimir Dvalishvili.
New Serbian goalkeeper Bojan Saranov, midfielder Dele Yampolsky and Haim Megrelashvili will have to wait a little longer before they start their first match for Maccabi.
Haifa is also hoping to still add another striker to its squad after the transfer of Hen Azriel from Betar Jerusalem fell through on Monday.
However, for the time being, it will have to rely on captain Yaniv Katan to inspire it once more, with the forward raring to go despite a back injury.
“There’s no doubt that the departure of five players affects the team,” Katan said. “But we had an excellent training camp and we are mentally ready. At this stage of the season you can’t be at your best, but I’m sure that you will see a cohesive team that knows what to do on the pitch.
“We are very determined to succeed and I’m sure the players will give 200 percent.”