TA clubs face final hurdle to get to Europa group stage

Moti Ivanir’s team will come under scrutiny on Thursday night.

MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Moussa Konate311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Moussa Konate311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Of the three Israeli teams still playing in Europe, Maccabi Tel Aviv has been by far the most impressive.
Maccabi Haifa stuttered on its way to the Champions League playoffs while Hapoel Tel Aviv lost to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz before reaching the same stage of the Europa League, where it will face FK Ekranas on Thursday.
The yellow-and-blue, on the other hand, impressed against Xazar Lankaran before thrashing FK Zeljeznicar of Bosnia 8-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.
However, all the superlatives showered on Moti Ivanir’s team will come under scrutiny on Thursday night when Maccabi hosts Greek giant Panathinaikos in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs, with the aggregate winner to advance to the competition’s group stage.
With all due respect to Lankaran and Zeljeznicar, Maccabi has yet to face a quality opponent this campaign.
Panathinaikos, which finished as runner-up to Olympiacos last season, dropped to the Europa League playoffs after being stunned by Denmark’s Odense BK in the Champions League third qualifying round and has been hit by the economic crisis in Greece, with stars Djibril Cisse, Sidney Govou and Gilberto Silva all leaving this summer.
However, Pana has played in the group stage of the Champions League or Europa League in each of the past eight seasons, and despite its recent struggles, is a clear favorite to knockout Maccabi.
“We said at the start of the season that we want to embark on a new road, building a team that will include young players from the youth department,” Ivanir said. “We feel that we are heading in the right direction and if we can overcome Panathinaikos this will be a massive achievement for us.”
Ivanir will be without influential midfielder Guillermo Israilevich for both legs against the Greeks, but the coach is optimistic that his young players can fill his boots.
“What we have achieved so far gives us a lot of confidence,” he said. “It is not just that we have won our matches, but it is the way we have done so. The owner is pleased with the direction we are heading in and we are seeing a different attitude from the players.
Some of the youngsters will play against Pana.
“It makes no difference that this is a big game. They have proven themselves and there’s no reason to stop believing in them.”
Pana’s Argentinian midfielder Sebastian Leto is expecting a tough match at Bloomfield Stadium.
“Maccabi is a difficult opponent,” he said. “We were knocked out of the Champions League after making mistakes in the return leg at home, but we hope to play much better against Maccabi.”
Unlike the yellow-and-blue, Hapoel will feel that it must overcome Lithuanian champion Ekranas and qualify for the group stage of a continental competition for a third straight season.
Hapoel played in the group stage of the Europa League in 2009/10 before reaching the Champions League groups last year.
After the humbling defeat to Vaduz in the second leg of the third qualifying round, the Reds will be looking to get back on track in Panevezys on Thursday.
“We are not worried that there will be a repeat of the performance against Vaduz,” striker Toto Tamuz said. “We learned a lot from that match and we are determined to record a good result on the road.”
Since the defeat to Vaduz, Hapoel has added midfielder Nosa Igiebor to its squad and the Nigerian could make his first start for the team on Thursday.
“After what happened in Vaduz we will be ready,” midfielder Shay Abutbul said. “The fact that everyone thinks that this is an easy match makes it more stressful. We have watched them and they are a good team.
“The most important thing is that we don’t lose on the road and decide the tie at home next Thursday. I can promise that what occurred in Vaduz will never happen again.”
MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Moussa Konate (left) and Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Toto Tamuz will be looking to continue their impressive starts to the season when their teams face Panathinaikos of Greece and FK Ekranas of Lithuania, respectively, in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs on Thursday night. (Adi Avishai) Both TA clubs face final hurdle to get to Europa group stage
On TV: FK Ekranas vs Hapoel Tel Aviv (live on Sport5 at 7 p.m.); Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Panathinaikos (live on Sport 1 at 8:10 p.m.)