Soccer: Haifa hopes for a super start vs Bayern

Maccabi returns to Champions League group stage tonight for first time in 7 years.

maccabi haifa 248.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
maccabi haifa 248.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Haifa will be hoping its Champions League dream doesn't turn into a nightmare when it hosts Bayern Munich at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Tuesday. Haifa was extremely impressive in its 5-1 aggregate victory over Red Bull Salzburg in the playoffs but faces a completely different level of opposition in the group stage, beginning with Bayern on Tuesday. After a poor start to the season by its standards, the German giant has won two straight league matches in impressive fashion, thrashing Borussia Dortmund 5-1 on the road in its last encounter on Saturday. Considering its recent form and its star-studded squad, which includes the likes of Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger, to mention a few, Munich will be entering Tuesday's match as a firm favorite. Nevertheless, Haifa coach Elisha Levy was adamant on Monday that his team "will not lie down without a fight". "We have a lot of respect for Bayern," Levy said. "But even Munich has weaknesses and we need to expose them. We are well aware of the differences between the teams, but we will continue to play our style of soccer in this match and throughout the campaign." Levy, whose Haifa team also faces Juventus and Bordeaux in Group A of European soccer's premier competition, does not expect his side to advance, but believes it will collect at least several points. "All the teams in our group are very strong, but we must believe in ourselves and play the right way," Levy said. "As long as we play good soccer and manage to pick up some points we will be able to consider the group stage as a success." Much of Bayern's early season struggles have been put down to the changes brought by new coach Louis Van Gaal. "The beginning of the season was difficult, but that is normal with a new coach and new players," Bayern defender Phillip Lahm said. "Now that we have settled we are expecting to claim all three points against Haifa." The illustrious coach, who led Ajax to the Champions League title in 1995 and joined Bayern after guiding AZ Alkmaar to the Dutch championship last season, is refusing to role out Haifa's chances of springing a surprise. "Every team has a chance," he said on Monday. "The fact that we lost to Mainz in the league means that Haifa also has a chance. Our scout has watched Maccabi twice and we could tell this is a very attacking team." Bayern has fond memories of its last and only visit to Ramat Gan, defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 in the Champions League exactly five years ago. Schweinsteiger featured as a substitute in that match and on Monday he spoke of what he believes will be the key to the encounter against Haifa. "We need to start the match well," said the midfielder. "When we played in Bucharest in our group stage opener last season we scored an early goal and that took the wind out of their sails. We will be looking to do the same against Maccabi." Despite the absence of Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni and Mark van Bommel, Van Gall still has numerous options from which to select his starting line-up. Levy, on the other hand, is expected to stick with the players who got him to this stage. The only change will be at the center of midfield where the suspended John Culma will be replaced by Gustavo Boccoli. Nir Davidovich will once more be the team's goalkeeper, with Dekel Keinan and Jorge Teixeira to play in the center of the defense. Right-back Eyal Meshumar will likely overcome a minor injury to start the match, with Peter Masilela to play on the left of the defense. Biram Kiyal will team-up with Boccoli, while youngsters Mohammad Ghadir and Eyal Golasa are set to keep their places on the flanks. Vladimir Dvalishvilli, who scored five goals in the qualifiers, will start up-front, with captain Yaniv Katan, who was also part of the Haifa team which made Israeli history when it played in the group stage in the 2002/03 season, to play just behind him. "The team from seven years ago was more experienced than the current one," said Katan. "Nevertheless, I believe these youngsters have the potential to achieve great things."