Maccabi Haifa's goalkeeper, Nir Davidovich, will have to undergo a second operation on his knee after re-injuring it in training before Wednesday's win over Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus in the second qualifying round of the European Champions League.
Davidovich was out of action last season with a similar injury after he damaged his knee 14 months ago in Israel's World Cup qualifier against Spain. He had an operation on the cruciate ligaments in his knee in Italy and will have to return for another surgical procedure there.
Davidovich played in the match in Belarus on Wednesday, but tests yesterday showed that his injury is serious and he may very well have to sit out for another entire season, opening the door once more for Dudu Awat, who stepped in as cover last season, to do so again.
The Hapoel Haifa goalkeeper will move, but in return, Hapoel coach Eli Guttman has asked for Maccabi to transfer Eyal Almoshnino to them in his place. Guttman also wanted Rafi Cohen, but the in-form striker will not be released.
While the deadline for announcing squads to play in the third qualifying round passed at 1 A.M. today, Haifa has been given until Sunday to complete the signing of a goalkeeper, with negotiations over Awat expected to be completed by then.
Another player who will re-join Haifa is Nigerian striker Ayegbeni Yakoubu, who was denied a work permit by the UK authorities to play for Derby County. Although he has asked his agent, Pini Zehavi a club in Europe, in the meantime Haifa has said that it wants him back as it tries to secure a place in the Champions League group stages.
If Yakoubu rejoins Haifa as expected, the club will release their other Nigerian player, forwards Ovidon Olishigon to Bnei Yehuda for the season.
Graz confident of success
Austrian observers of Sturm Graz appear to think that the Austrian club will beat Maccabi Haifa in the third qualifying round when the two teams meet in Sofia, Bulgaria on Tuesday.
"Sturm is playing well and in the past few weeks the team has been playing some of its best-ever soccer," Stefan Blumshein, a reporter for the Viennese daily Kourier said yesterday.
"French midfielder Alain Masudi is excellent, he dictates the pace of the game and the team is playing free-flowing soccer which totally dominates the opposition. I would call it happy soccer," he said.
Officials at Graz are convinced that they will overcome Haifa in the battle to reach the group stages of the Champions League for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
The second team from the Austrian city, GAK Graz, has also reached the third qualifying round, where it is set to play against Lokomotiv Moscow.
While Masudi is seen as the most dominant player in the side, observers have criticized Jerzy Brzeczek, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv player, who has failed to fill the ample boots of Ivica Vastic in the attacking midfielder's role, and has not produced the same levels of play which he showed at his former club, Tyrol Innsbruck.
Assistant coach Franco Foda told Kourier in the interview that his team has been told to be very wary of Haifa, particularly from the high-quality midfield, pointing out Giovanni Rosso and striker Rafi Cohen in particular. He said that he thought that the chances of qualification were about 50-50, but added that Sturm's experience at international level could give them the edge. The press also pointed out that the fact that Haifa would not be playing at home would greatly help the Austrian team.
Sturm will arrive in Sofia on Monday and will hold a training session in the evening at the CSKA Stadium where the game will be held on Tuesday evening. Some 90 supporters are expected to arrive with the team, making for between 300-500 Austrian supporters in all.
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