Maccabi Haifa
Maccabi Haifa players lifting the championship plate after last night’s 2-0 win over Kiryat Shmona gave them a 12th league title. Photo by Sharon Bukov
Text size

Maccabi Haifa today will learn which of five teams - Wisla Krakow, Genk, Sturm Graz, Vktoria Plzen or Malmo - will constitute the last obstacle to the group stage of the Champions League. Haifa is gunning for its third group stage appearance, which it last made during the 2009/10 season.

The playoff draw will be held in the UEFA offices in Switzerland, as is the Europa League draw.

Although unseeded, Wisla Krakow probably would be the toughest opponent for Haifa. The Polish champion is led by a strong Dutch coaching staff, headed by Robert Maaskant. The team is incredibly fit. Israeli Maor Melikson - considered one of the best players in the league - is in the best shape of his career.

Racing Genk would also pose a challenge. Head coach Frank Vercauteren built a very physical team with a dangerous set of strikers made up of Elyaniv Barda, Belgian national team member Jelle Vossen and Thomas Buffel.

Vktoria Plzen is evenly matched with Maccabi Haifa. Head coach Pavel Vrba runs a very aggressive offense, which produced 13 goals in four qualifying matches. Haifa should beat the fourth option, Sturm Graz, which has a nostalgic place for Maccabi owner Yaakov Shahar. The Graz stadium is where Haifa started its run to its first group stage appearance nine years ago.

The weakest link in the group is Malmo, though it is a walking nightmare for veterans Nir Davidovitch and Shlomi Arbeitman. The Swedish champs in the 2004/05 season knocked out the favored Haifa from the Champions League. The team is well-organized but lacks stars.