UEFA Champions League: Haifa relishing chance to play the best
Maccabi to find out group stage opponents in tonight's draw.
By ALLON SINAI
Maccabi Haifa may still be coming down to earth from its progress to the Champions League group stage, but on Thursday evening it will already learn the identity of the three teams it will face over the next three months in European soccer's premier competition.
Haifa defeated Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 in the second leg of the Champions League playoffs at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Tuesday, completing a 5-1 aggregate victory to become the first Israeli team to reach the group stage more than once.
The Israeli champion was very convincing in both of its matches against the Austrians, but starting from September 15/16 it will be facing far tougher opposition.
Haifa will be placed in the fourth seeding pot in Thursday's draw and will be coming up against some of Europe's biggest clubs.
The first seeding pot will include European champion Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan, Sevilla, Bayern Munich and Arsenal, after the London club got the better of Celtic on Wednesday night.
The second seeding pot also contains such giants as Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as the likes of Lyon, Porto, Rangers and CSKA Moscow.
Even the third seeding pot includes teams of the stature of Atletico Madrid, Marseille and Besiktas, meaning Haifa will be drawn to face two, if not three, of the continent's most prestigious clubs.
Almost all of Haifa's players will be making their Champions League debut next month, with only Yaniv Katan and Alon Harazi remaining from the team which played in the group stage in the 2002/03 season.
Coach Elisha Levy, who will become the fourth Israeli to guide a team in the lucrative competition, joining Itzhak Schum, Nir Klinger and Avraham Grant on the short list, will complete his long road to the top, which began at Hapoel Beit She'an some 20 years ago.
"I took the most difficult and long path, from Beit She'an to the great Haifa," Levy said. "When I joined Haifa I said that I appreciate being given this opportunity and I'm glad that in my first season at the club we won the championship. I think we are continuing to move in the right direction."
Haifa built a deep squad by Israeli standards over the summer, but now that it will be playing six more matches against the cream of European soccer, Levy recognizes that he will need to strengthen his team.
"We have an excellent squad, but we are taking into account that we will be playing many more matches over the coming months and that we will need to add players," Levy said.
The coach also spoke of his decision to start teenagers Mohammed Ghadir and Eyal Golasa in both matches against Salzburg. "I think these two kids have made steady progress and I don't feel it was a gamble to use them," said Levy of the two, who each scored on Tuesday.
Levy is also refusing to settle for simply participating in the group stage.
"I'm a very competitive person and I'm already thinking ahead," said Levy.
"We must not rest on our laurels. Even before we faced Salzburg we knew we had already guaranteed ourselves a place in the Europa League group stage.
"But had we entered the tie with that attitude we would have failed. We must set ourselves a high target and hope for the best in the Champions League group stage."
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