UEFA Cup: The end of the road for Mac Haifa?

European campaign on the line tonight against Espanyol.

Maccabi Haifa 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa will try to become the third Israeli club to reach the quarterfinals of a European competition on Thursday night when it faces Espanyol at Montjuic Stadium in the second leg of the UEFA Cup Round of 16. Maccabi is hoping to join the 2002 Hapoel Tel Aviv team that reached the UEFA Cup quarterfinals and the 1999 Haifa squad that made it to the last eight of the European Cup Winners Cup. The dynasty built by coach Roni Levy at Haifa over the last three years has been crumbling to pieces over the last seven months, but on Thursday night, the team can reach one last high before the curtain comes down on the current lineup and Levy begins a rebuilding process over the summer. Haifa, which claimed the last three Israeli Premier League championships, drew 0-0 with the Spanish club at Bloomfield Stadium last Thursday and Levy knows that it will take something special for his team to advance to the quarterfinals of the competition. "This is a huge occasion and a massive challenge," he said. "I know that the odds are against us, but we can do it. Soccer has the knack of producing special and sensational nights and I hope we will have one of those nights on Thursday. "My job is to coach the team even when times are difficult and things aren't going our way. You need to know how to deal with these situations. That is when a coach is truly tested." Haifa will be without key midfielders Xavier Dirceo and Abas Suan, who are suspended for the match after picking up yellow cards in the first leg. Levy has an otherwise full squad to pick from, with captain Yaniv Katan looking to improve on his performance in the first leg and play a crucial role in his side's attack. "I think it will be very difficult to knock them out," Katan said. "They are an excellent team, but we have a chance and we must make the most of it. I hope we can reproduce our good European form against Espanyol." Maccabi, which is currently seventh in the domestic league, fell to its eighth Premier League defeat against Betar Jerusalem on Sunday and has already lost the same amount of matches in the league this season as in the two previous campaigns combined. On the other hand, the club has won four, drawn four and only lost one of its nine UEFA Cup matches to date and ended Espanyol's seven-match win streak in the competition last week. "Maccabi Haifa is a dangerous opponent, but we need to find a way to defeat them," Espanyol defender Francisco Chica said. "We achieved a good result in the first leg, but we must be careful because any small mistake could cost us the tie. "Haifa is undoubtedly the most difficult opponent we've faced in the UEFA Cup this year, but we know what we need to do and we are confident we can do it." Haifa goalkeeper Nir Davidovitch will in all likelihood be the busier of the two 'keepers on Thursday. The Israeli international is confident his side can complete the task at hand. "We are optimistic," he said. "We will do our utmost and I hope we will get a good result. "Matches don't come any bigger than this, but we are ready and are looking to advance."