Yellow-and-blue ready to open with a bang

New-look Mac TA visits Hungarian champ Gyori to kick off Champions League qualifying.

maccabi tel aviv 370 (photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv website)
maccabi tel aviv 370
(photo credit: Maccabi Tel Aviv website)
Without two of the anchors from last season’s championship-winning team, Maccabi Tel Aviv will be looking to prove it still has what it takes to reach the Champions League group stage when it begins its qualifying campaign against Gyori ETO of Hungary on Wednesday.
Maccabi visits the Hungarian champion in the first leg of the second qualifying round, hoping to get its quest off on the right foot ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg at Bloomfield Stadium.
To reach the group stage, Maccabi will need to not only overcome Gyori, but also triumph in two more home-andaway ties in the third qualifying round and the playoff stage.
Maccabi will have to manage without two of last season’s stars as it goes in search of a first Champions League group stage berth since 2004/05, with goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and topscorer Eliran Atar leaving this summer.
The Nigerian stopper was the foundation to Tel Aviv’s composed defensive play last season, but he returned to French side Lille after spending one year on loan at Maccabi, despite the yellowand- blue’s desire to retain his services.
Atar scored a league-best 22 goals last season, and despite being under contract, Maccabi never had any intention of standing in his way when French club Stade de Reims offered $1.8 million.
Maccabi has brought in eight new players, but it remains to be seen if any of them are capable of filling Enyeama’s and Atar’s shoes.
The 34-year-old Juan Pablo Colinas is set to take Enyeama’s place as the team’s number one ’keeper after joining from Sporting Gijon last week, but he is not expected to start on Wednesday, with 20-year-old Barak Levy likely to be given the place between the posts.
New Spanish defender Mane is also expected to be on the bench on Wednesday, with Sousa set to stick to last season’s reliable back-four of Shiran Yeini, Yoav Ziv, Eitan Tibi and Carlos Garcia.
Gal Alberman, Maharan Radi and Eran Zahavi are all likely to hold onto their places in the midfield from last season, but Sousa is leaning towards the inclusion of new signing Omri Altman on the flank, with the returning Barak Itzhaki anticipated to take the place of good friend Atar alongside Rade Prica.
“Eliran scored a lot of goals and we always knew he would score goals so it’s going to be a challenge for us,” said Prica, who only joined the team in last season’s January transfer window but nevertheless played a crucial role in the yellow-and-blue’s run to the title.
“I think we have the players to do the same job we did last year. Every player needs to take more responsibility. I, of course, have to take the responsibility to score more goals, but it’s important that every player takes on more responsibility and then we will do fine.”
Maccabi has been far from impressive in its pre-season matches, but Prica remains optimistic nevertheless.
“It’s always difficult when you come back from holiday and start training, but in the last two games I’ve seen a lot of improvement and I think we will do well,” the Swede said.
“We know Gyori is a good team. It’s probably the worst opponent we could have got.”
Gyori will be without head coach Attila Pinter on Wednesday, as well as in the return leg, after he was banned for two games for an offense committed during a Champions League match against Dinamo Zagreb in August 2010. His assistant Jozsef Farkas will take his place on the bench.
Gyori, which ended a 30-year wait for the Hungarian top-flight title last season, clinching the championship with three matches to spare, looks to be entering Wednesday in top form after outplaying Debrecen 3-0 in the Hungarian Super Cup on Saturday.
After watching Gyori in the Super Cup, Sousa believes Maccabi will be the clear underdog in the tie.
“I think they have a much better chance than us,” he said. “They have had the same coach for three seasons. They have players in key positions that have been playing together for years. They practically destroyed Debrecen and are in form.”
Nevertheless, Sousa insisted that Maccabi will be aiming to win Wednesday’s first leg, although he first and foremost would like to see his team score an away goal ahead of next week’s decider in Jaffa.
“In the qualifying rounds the most important thing when you play away in the first game is to score goals,” he said.
“I always believe we can win. I don’t prepare my teams to draw or to lose.”