Soccer / Champions League group stage draw / Haifa to take on European big guns Bayern, Juventus
Last night in Monte Carlo, UEFA player of the year Lionel Messi was invited on stage to draw the miniature soccer balls that represented the clubs in the Champions League group stage draw.
Barcelona's Argentine phenom ascended the stage in a finely-tailored suit and began picking ball after ball. Only when the tournament picture was almost entirely clear did he pick the one with Maccabi Haifa's name on it - by then there were few options left.
Maccabi drew an imposing group last night at Monaco's Grimaldi Forum, one that includes Bayern Munich and Juventus - Germany and Italy's runners-up - and French champion Bordeaux.
Group A may have no superpowers the likes of which top the English or Spanish leagues, but it is a group that will present the Israeli champion with a daunting challenge in its dreams of advancing to the round of 16.
At first glance, Alessandro del Piero's Juventus seems like the favorite to take the group. A bribery scandal that saw the team demoted to Serie B has been virtually forgotten, and Juve's young coach Ciro Ferrara makes no bones about his ambitions for the club: the Italian championship and a showing in the final stages of the Champions League.
Munich, which has struggled recently in the Bundesliga, cuts a less intimidating figure, but certainly not one Haifa can afford to dismiss. A reporter for the newspaper Bild said of Munich, "It's not just that it can't win in the league. The players just don't understand the coach, [Louis] van Gaal - at least for now." This is Van Gaal's first stint in Munich after several seasons with Dutch champion AZ.
If Haifa is to finish third and earn itself the right to compete in the Europa League, it will have to do so at the expense of Bordeaux - a tricky, but not impossible task. The Frenchmen's keeper Cedric Carrasso is solid in the net, and 23-year-old Yoann Gourcuff is a rising star at midfield.
"We got a very difficult draw," said Haifa midfielder Biram Kiyal. "Personally, I wanted Real Madrid, but we believe in soccer, anything is possible."