Mac Haifa, CSKA Moscow knotted at 0-0; Hap TA has edge over Rangers.
By ALLON SINAI
The fate of Israel's two remaining UEFA Cup representatives hangs in the balance Thursday night. Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv take positive results from last week's first leg matches into their return legs on Thursday and are both optimistic of advancing to the last 16 of the competition.
Haifa drew 0-0 against CSKA Moscow in Russia last week, with Hapoel defeating Glasgow Rangers 2-1 at Bloomfield Stadium.
Maccabi will be without five of its regulars at Bloomfield on Thursday. Yaniv Katan, who was injured in the team's Premier League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday, midfielder Abas Suan and defenders Rafael Olara and Adoram Keisi are all missing from coach Roni Levy's squad.
Captain Alon Harazi is confident, nevertheless, hoping the Russian squad will buckle under the pressure. "They are a rich and ambitious club and they have a lot to lose," he said Wednesday. "If they don't advance, it will be a catastrophe for them.
"Our squad is not in an ideal state, but every player at Maccabi Haifa is a worthy player and whoever plays will give his maximum."
CSKA is guided by coach Valery Gazzaev, who led the team to the UEFA Cup title just two seasons ago, and, despite its disappointing display last week, the Russian seemed calm and relaxed in the pre-match post conference on Wednesday.
"We played reasonably well in the first leg, but Haifa was extraordinary," he said. "They were well organized and didn't let us play our game. We were unable to penetrate their formation, but I think that at home, Haifa will play an open game and will attack much more."
Hapoel Tel Aviv secured a 2-1 victory against Rangers at Bloomfield eight days ago thanks to goals by Salim Toama and Baruch Dego, but captain Yossi Abuksis preferred to lower the expectations ahead of Thursday's second leg at Ibrox.
"Before the first leg, I said that if we don't win at home, we won't have any chance of advancing. But our win doesn't guarantee us anything.
"There is still a lot of work to be done. This is one of our most difficult matches ever, but we will try to make history."
Tel Aviv coach Nir Levin will have a full squad at his disposal, with influential defender Javier Paes returning from suspension. Shavit Elimelech will once again stand in goal for Hapoel and the 'keeper is dreaming of repeating the club's glorious European campaign in 2001/02, when the team reached the UEFA Cup quarterfinals. "We are playing to advance," he said.
"We have to be first to every ball. Their fans are a serious factor and I won't be able to speak to my defense because of the noise."
Rangers manager Walter Smith is facing a defensive crisis ahead of the match, with Karl Svensson the latest to join the injury list. The Scottish manager is already without Sasa Papac and Ugo Ehiogu, who is unlikely to be fit in time. Smith will nevertheless be boosted by the recovery of Barry Ferguson and by the likely return to the lineup of Croatian striker Dado Prso.
"Svensson will have a fitness test in the morning. He has been a little bit slower in recovering than Ferguson," Smith said. "Hopefully, Svensson will be fit as well, because we're not too well-endowed for defenders at the moment."
Kevin Thomson is set to make his European debut for the club after recovering from a hamstring injury and will join Ferguson in the midfield. "Barry Ferguson and Kevin Thomson both trained this morning," said Smith.
"They came through the training session okay and, as long as there is no reaction, they will both be fit. We only had 14 senior players for the game in Israel so it helps that we haven't lost any more and we've gained one through Kevin."
The manager is also hopeful that the Ibrox faithful will push the team to victory in a similar way in which the Hapoel fans did in Israel.
"The crowd at the last game without a doubt had an influence on the refereeing decisions," he said.
"Hopefully with the crowd at Ibrox, we can get some of the decisions that went against us in the first leg. From our point of view, we have to do enough to get the crowd up and give them something to shout about. We have to achieve that first and foremost."
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.