Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa has been drawn against Liverpool in the final qualifying round of the Champions League, assuming that Avraham Grant's charges see off Haka of Finland in the preliminary round.
It would be a great shame if Haifa were not able to dispose of Haka. This could be an experience for all involved: For Israeli soccer fans, the prospect of seeing Owen, Fowler Heskey et al playing at Kiryat Eliezer is a mouthwatering one, and for the Haifa squad, a chance to visit Liverpool's famous Anfield stadium could be a one-time offer.
With all due respect to Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam, Liverpool would be the most famous club ever to meet an Israeli opponent in official competition. It would also be the first time an Israeli side has ever faced an English one in official European competition.
Liverpool, the reigning UEFA, FA and Worthington Cup holder, has won the European Championship twice and the English league 18 times. That is the pedigree of the team that waits for winner of the two-legged tie between Haifa and Haka. Whichever team wins that preliminary round encounter, Liverpool will be expected to cruise into the money-spinning group stage of the Champions League.
If Haifa beats Haka, it will host Liverpool in the first leg of the tie on August 8, and will travel to Liverpool for the return leg on August 21. The second leg has been brought forward by one day, to allow Liverpool to face Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup on August 24.
It is almost superfluous to say that Liverpool will be the favorite to beat either Haifa or Haka (or a combined Haifa-Haka team, for that matter). Last season's transfer budget was $85 million, a sum that Israel's soccer bosses would be happy to share between them.
Liverpool has not won the English league for 11 years, but many believe that the current squad is the best since Bob Paisley's legendary team of two decades ago.
For Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, the memory of facing an Israeli team must still be painful. He was in charge of the French national team that lost to Israel 3-2 in Paris, losing its place in the 1994 World Cup.
Houllier heard of his possible opponents while returning from a pre-season tour in the Far East. "We don't know anything about either team," he said. "It's going to be important that we are well prepared for whichever one we face."
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