MOSCOW - Hapoel Tel Aviv will have to find extra strength and ability tonight in the below-zero temperature of Romanskuya when they face Lokomotiv Moscow with the prize a place in the last-16 of the UEFA Cup.
The game - assuming that it's not canceled due to the cold - will kick off at 7 P.M. with live coverage on Channel 2 and Channel 5, plus the new pay-per-view channel, and on Reshet Bet. Temperatures dropped to minus 14 degrees Celsius last night in Romanskuya, which is a two-hour drive from Moscow. The Tel Avivians faced arguably the toughest conditions they have ever experienced. If tonight's temperature prior to kickoff goes below minus 15, the referee, in accordance with UEFA regulations, will not let the game go ahead.
Hapoel leads the tie 2-1 from the first leg at Bloomfield two weeks ago, when a late Assi Domb goal gave the club, definitely the underdog with far less experience in Europe, a slim advantage.
The Tel Avivians arrived in Moscow on Friday and began training in the cold immediately. Last night's final training session at the match venue at the hour of kickoff was a totally new experience, however. Not only did they have to put up with the Arctic conditions, they also found a dreadful, albeit heated, playing surface which will make technical football almost impossible.
"The pitch is simply terrible, we did not expect this. It will be difficult to make even a single decent pass," said defender Yigal Antebi. "It's bad, very bad, that we will be forced to play a completely different type of game. This is not they type of game where you can show what you are capable of and we will have to be prepared to graft away," said fellow defender Ilan Bachar.
Hapoel's only advantage tonight is that the venue is also not Lokomotiv's. The stadium belongs to Saturn Romanskuya, a mid-table club in the Russian first division which the Moscow club nominated as a venue for the tie close enough to home and accessible to its supporters. Lokomotiv's pitch is not heated, and it would be impossible to play on a surface which is frozen rock-solid.
The match will be officiated by a Luxembourg trio, headed by referee Alain Hamar.
Regardless of the tough conditions, Yossi Abuksis, who is not eligible to play as he is forced to serve a one-match ban after picking up a yellow card in the last match, picked up an ankle injury during training last night. The severity of the knock will be known only today.
Some 50 supporters made the journey from Moscow yesterday to see coach Dror Kashtan's final training session before the game, which they all hope will be an historic venue.
Apart from Abuksis, the lineup which beat the Russians at Bloomfield will likely be the same and is expected to be: Shavit Elimelech, Ilan Bachar, Shimon Gershon, Assi Domb, Yigal Antebi, Salim Tuamah, Istvan Pishont, Denis Onishenko, Gabor Helmei, Milan Osterc, Sergei Clescenco.
Tuamah is the player likely to come in for the suspended Abuksis.
Kashtan will try to play a similar style to what he showed in the previous encounters and particularly the away game against Chelsea, namely to try and play an attacking game, but keep it safe and avoid making mistakes. The coach especially warned the players of the slippery conditions and to make sure not to err and possibly give the ball away.
Red Square visit
The team canceled its morning training session yesterday and toured some of the sights of the city with a visit to Red Square and the Kremlin. They were greeted with sunshine and cold, cold air, with the thermometer rising to only minus three degrees. It was perfect weather for tourists and Clescenco, who tried to talk his way out of the visit after saying he had already seen the sights, was turned down by Kashtan, who insisted that the entire team stick together.
The players, who received a constant security escort, smiled as they posed for photos in front of the Lenin Mausoleum and in and around the Kremlin compound.
""I just hope that tomorrow in Romanskuya we'll also be able to smile as we did today," said Gabor Helmei.
Yossi Abuksis could not compose himself yesterday during the training session and walked around nervously on the touchline. "I still cannot believe that I'm not going to play tomorrow. I participate in all the preparations for the game and yet I know that despite the feeling that I'm ready to do my job, I won't be allowed to [play] tomorrow," he said.
Pishont will take over Abuksis's role in the heart of midfield, with Salim Tuamah moving into a more attacking role.
Kashtan ended yesterday's preparations with personal conversations with the players to bolster their confidence ahead of the kickoff.
Only 15 Russians fit
With the Russian league season long finished, Lokomotiv is struggling to put together a team for tonight's clash, and there is a real fear in the home team's camp that they may not succeed in overcoming Hapoel.
A series of injuries and suspensions, particularly to defenders, sees the home team fielding only 15 players for the match, three short of what they are allowed.
Coach Yuri Semin has been unable to keep his original back line together, and the entire defense has undergone major changes.
Semin did not turn up for the pre-match press conference and sent his assistant, Vladimir Ashtarkov, instead, who said he hoped that the reduced squad would be able to stand up to the pressure of facing "a very strong opponent which is improving with every match it plays."
Ashtarkov explained his club's problems: "December is a far from ideal time for us to be playing competitive soccer but we must face the situation, and hope there won't be any surprises, and that the game will go ahead as planned," he said.
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