UEFA Champions League: Mac Haifa primed for crucial road match

Red Bull Salzburg is all that stands in way of Israeli champion reaching CL group stage.

Mac Haifa 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Mac Haifa 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Maccabi Haifa quite simply can't afford to lose to Red Bull Salzburg in the first leg of the Champions League playoff in Austria on Wednesday. While, in theory, a defeat will not end Haifa's dream of reaching the Champions League group stage, as it will still be able to complete an aggregate victory when it hosts the return leg at National Stadium in Ramat Gan next Tuesday, the team's results in Europe over the past decade show otherwise. In the last 10 seasons, Haifa has played 17 home-and-away ties in Europe, not including the encounter against Finland's Haka in the 2001/02 season in which the Israelis suffered a technical loss. Of those 17, Haifa lost away from home in seven of the ties and in each one of them went on to be knocked-out of continental competition. In the other 10 encounters in which it won or draw on the road, Maccabi advanced nine times, with its only failure to progress coming against Valencia in the 2003/04 season. Considering all of the above, it is no surprise that Haifa coach Elisha Levy is not willing to settle for a slender defeat on Wednesday night. "We always enter our matches with the aim of winning them, even when we are playing on the road," Levy said in the pre-match press conference. "We have a good squad, with a nice mixture of experience and youth and we believe in ourselves." Haifa will be without the suspended Jorge Teixeira, but otherwise Levy will have a full squad at his disposal, with his biggest dilemma coming once more in the right flank of the midfield where he will need to decide between Mohammed Ghadir and Gustavo Boccoli. "I'm pretty sure of what I plan to do in the match," Levy said. "The first leg is extremely important and I hope we can make sure the tie will be decided at Ramat Gan. We proved in our away game against FK Aktobe that we can defend well and in the home leg we showed we can attack. I hope that in this match we will do both properly." Haifa has fond memories of the last time it faced an Austrian club. In the 2002/03 season, Haifa met then Austrian runner-up Sturm Graz in the third and final qualifying round for the Champions League group stage, and after winning the first leg 2-0, became the first Israeli team to reach the group stage with a dramatic 3-3 draw in Austria. Maccabi and Salzburg have met once before in European competition, with the Austrians defeating Haifa both home and away in Champions League qualification in the 1994/95 season. Salzburg, which is coached by Dutchman Huub Stevens, has won three of its first four league matches of the season and claimed a 7-1 victory in the cup on Saturday. "I have a lot of respect for the Haifa players," said Stevens, whose team needed road victories to overcome both Bohemian FC of Ireland and Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia in the second and third qualifying rounds, respectively, after only managing to draw 1-1 at home in the first legs. "This is obviously an historic match. We are 180 minutes from the Champions League and this is huge. Both teams have an equal chance of winning. Haifa showed it has a lot of heart in its comeback victory over Aktobe and is a very good team, better than Zagreb. If Haifa has made it this far it is obviously a quality team." Captain Yaniv Katan and striker Vladimir Dvalishvili will once again be at the center of Haifa's attempts on the offensive end, with the Georgian finding the back of the net four times in four qualifies so far and Katan scoring twice in three matches, including the goal which sparked his team's 4-3 comeback victory against Aktobe. "We feel that this is our chance to achieve something really big," said Katan. "We have played in the Champions League before and we will do our all to get there again."