UEFA Cup: Israelis to kick off UEFA Cup campaigns

In qualifiers tonight: Hapoel Tel Aviv welcomes Juvenes/Dogana, Kiryat Shmona hosts Mogren.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
It may just be mid-July, but on Thursday evening Hapoel Tel Aviv and Ironi Kiryat Shmona will already take the first step in what they hope will be long European campaigns. Hapoel and Kiryat Shmona will both face lowly opposition in the first leg of the UEFA Cup first qualifying round and will be looking to open up a significant advantage ahead of their return legs on the road next week. Tel Aviv hosts Juvenes/ Dogana from San Marino at Rishon Lezion, due to construction work currently taking place at Bloomfield Stadium, and Kiryat Shmona plays Montenegrin side Mogren at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in Haifa, as its home field doesn't meet UEFA standards. Hapoel became the first Israeli team to reach the group stage of the UEFA Cup on two occasions last season before eventually being knocked out after finishing last in its group with three losses from four matches. Two seasons ago the team lost to Glasgow Rangers in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, which has had an important place in Hapoel history ever since the side advanced all the way to the quarterfinals in the 2001/02 season. After experiencing such a dismal league campaign last year and only qualifying for Europe by reaching the State Cup final, Hapoel's primary target this season is to improve in local play. But coach Eli Gutman guaranteed on Wednesday that his side will not overlook the UEFA Cup and will not underestimate the minnows from San Marino. "We are taking this match very seriously," said Gutman, who sent condolences to the families of kidnapped IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, whose bodies were returned to Israel on Wednesday at the start of his pre-match press conference. The Hapoel line-up on Thursday won't be all that different to the one Gutman used at the closing stages of last season. Defender Douglas da Silva, who joined the team from Hapoel Kfar Saba, is expected to start at the center of defense, but Ben Luz and the Premier League's top scorer from last season Samuel Yeboah, who were also both acquired from Kfar Saba, will likely have to settle for a place on the substitute's bench. "We will not underestimate any opponent. I know all about Juvenes. They play the traditional Italian 4-4-2 formation and have two good strikers," Gutman said about the amateurs. Of what he expects to see from his team the coach said: "I hope to see my team pressuring its opponent and playing quickly on attack. In the middle of July the players aren't in top form and they're not supposed to be. Hapoel is, however, ready for the match and will be hoping to finish off the tie on Thursday." Unlike the experienced Hapoel, which will be playing its 57th match in continental competition, Kiryat Shmona will be making its European debut on Thursday. Ironi, which was only promoted to the Premier League for the first time in its history last summer, was tipped by many to be relegated at the start of last season, but played consistently well under the guidance of coach Ran Ben-Shimon and ended up finishing in third position to claim a UEFA Cup berth. Ben-Shimon has since left to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv and Michel Dayan will be guiding the team for the first time in an official match on Thursday. "We're not going to win the UEFA Cup this season, but it would feel great to at least get through one round," said Dayan. "I'm very excited and I think the players and all of Kiryat Shmona is as well." The biggest change at Kiryat Shmona in the off season was at the goalkeeper's position, with veteran goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech leaving for Hapoel Petah Tikva. The 21-year-old Danny Amos is expected to take his place between the posts on Thursday. The team has, however, managed to maintain the services of defender Yaniv Lavi and striker Yuval Avidor, who both had a breakout season last year, and will be confident of claiming a victory on Thursday. Discussing the Montenegrin cup holder Dayan said: "We don't know much about them, but they won the cup and have got players from the national team in their squad. "Mogren is a very strong and physical side. Their smallest player is 1.85 meters tall so we must give them the respect they deserve."