"Make no mistake about it," read the report in one of the Austrian newspapers following the draw for the playoff round of the Championship League. "It could have been much worse."
The paper was referring, of course, to the fact that Red Bull Salzburg has been drawn against Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa in the last hurdle before the competition's money-spinning group rounds. Predictably, however, Salzburg's Dutch manager, Huub Stevens, was a little more respectful when talking about his team's Israeli opponent.
"This is in no way an easy ride into the next stage," he said after Friday's draw. "Israeli soccer has come a long way in recent years; the coaches there really know how to develop young players. I hope that we will be able to get to know Haifa inside out before the two games against them later this month."
If soccer games were won on omens alone, Salzburg would have every reason to be optimistic ahead of the two games against Haifa: In the 1994/95 season the Austrian side eliminated Haifa from the Champions League, thanks to 3-1 and 2-1 victories.
According to one local journalist, the official comments about treating all opponents the same and having the utmost respect for Haifa should not be taken too seriously. "Obviously," says Phillipe Grill, "Salzburg is delighted with the draw and they believe that the path to the next stage will be a relatively easy one. After all," he adds, "Haifa is no Olympiakos."
Unlike Haifa, Salzburg's attention is not focused on the financial benefits of qualifying for the next round; thanks to the takeover by Red Bull in 2005 and with a budget of 50 million euros - seven times that of Haifa - they can afford to concentrate purely on soccer.
According to Grill, "In its current incarnation, Salzburg is hardly an Austrian team; it's a team of foreigners." Indeed, the 17 overseas players on the team's roster overshadow the six Austrians who are still members of the squad, even if those homegrown players are among the best in the country and form the backbone of the national team. Salzburg also has a rich tradition of European soccer: In 1994, the team - which was known then as Austria Salzburg - reached the final of the UEFA Cup, where it lost to Inter Milan.
At the end of last season, the team fired Dutch coach Co Adriaanse - even though he played super-attacking soccer and won the league title. The reason for his dismissal, according to local reporters, was his penchant for getting into trouble with all those around him - soccer officials, journalists, player, fans and members of the team's board of directors.
His replacement, Huub Stevens, has brought with him to Austria the same sort of defensive discipline that has characterized his managerial career to date. The 55-year-old manager plays with a 3-1-4-2 formation, occasionally switching to a 4-1-4-1.
According to local reports, the 1-1 draw that Salzburg managed in the first round of the Europa League against Dinamo Zagreb was hugely fortuitous given that the players were still getting used to the new coach's style of play. Salzburg's modern stadium, which has room for 31,000 fans, is not expected to be full for the game against Haifa, since the Israeli opponent is not the sort of team that can bring Austrian fans out in their thousands. In addition to having to get used to playing on Salzburg's synthetic turf, the Haifa players will have to find a way to deal with the Austrians' physical and technical style of play.
Team bosses at the Austrian champion, along with journalists and fans, believe that they have a 60 percent chance of ousting Haifa. This, no doubt, is partly because the return leg will be played in Israel, where the heat and humidity of an August evening will play to Haifa's advantage. (Eli Shvidler)
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