UEFA Europa League: Hapoel TA takes aim at top spot in group
UEFA Europa League Hapo
By ALLON SINAI
After securing its place in the Europa League last 32 two weeks ago, Hapoel Tel Aviv turns its attention to claiming first position in Group C when it hosts Hamburg at Bloomfield Stadium on Thursday night.
Only a victory for Hapoel will see it leapfrog the Germans, who are currently top of the group and have also already advanced to the next stage.
Hapoel, which has won both of its group home matches so far, beating Celtic and Rapid Vienna by a combined goal difference of 7-2, was disappointing in its 2-0 defeat at Celtic two weeks ago, and coach Eli Gutman will be hoping his team can end the group stage on a high ahead of Friday's last 32 draw.
"We want to continue and play the soccer that got us to this position in the hope of ending the group in first place," Gutman said on Wednesday.
"The players will be relaxed, yet motivated, to beat Hamburg. We passed the real test by progressing to the next round, but when you face a team like Hamburg you always want to win."
Besides the advantage of hosting the second leg of the round of 32, which will take place in mid-February, there isn't much of a benefit in finishing first in the group.
The 12 group-winners and the four best third-ranked teams in the Champions League group stage will be seeded in Friday's draw, but there will still be plenty of illustrious names among the unseeded sides. Even if it does win on Thursday and ends the group stage in first place, Hapoel could still face the likes of England's Liverpool and Everton or Spain's Atletico Madrid and Villarreal.
Regardless, Gutman plans to play his strongest team against Hamburg, with Omri Canada to replace Danny Bondarv at right-back, Georgian Zurab Menteshashvili to substitute for the suspended Avihai Yadin and Samuel Yeboah to start up-front with Itai Shechter.
Hapoel lost 4-2 at Hamburg on October 1, and Gutman revealed on Wednesday that the one-sided defeat in Germany changed his team's attitude in the competition.
"We came to the conclusion that we must attack and can not settle for defending," Gutman said. "We will do so once more on Thursday."
Hamburg will be in a confident mood on Thursday after snapping a seven-game winless streak in the German Bundesliga over the weekend, thrashing Nurnberg 4-0.
The Germans have also got an impressive road record in continental play, winning 13 of their last 16 European away games, only losing to Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester City and Rapid Vienna.
"We weren't surprised by Hapoel's performance in the group stage," said Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia.
"We knew Hapoel was a good team, but we want to finish the group in first position. This match is a bonus for the teams, but both sides want to finish top of the group and it will be a good and intensive encounter."
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