Mission possible for Maccabi Haifa
The draw for the third qualifying round of the Champions League was made Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, and - like most of the seeded teams in the competition - Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa was pitted against deputy Austrian champion Sturm Graz.
The draw for the third qualifying round of the Champions League was made Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, and - like most of the seeded teams in the competition - Israeli champion Maccabi Haifa was pitted against deputy Austrian champion Sturm Graz. Before that, however, Haifa still has to get past the second qualifying round, against Belshina of Belarus.
Given the teams that Haifa could have been draw to face - among them Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Milan, any one which would effectively have slammed closed the door to the money-spinning group stage of the competition - Sturm Graz can be defined a relatively easy opponent.
Of course, everything is relative. Sturm Graz is still a very strong team and better than Maccabi Haifa. In any case, qualifying for the group stage seems to be a realistic aim for Haifa, and, unlike last season, when Haifa was to have played Liverpool, a history-making appearance does not seem like an absurd dream. One thing is certain: This is the easiest draw an Israeli team has been handed since 1995 and Grasshoppers Zurich.
Another Israeli team, Hapoel Tel Aviv, has its own unpleasant memories of Sturm Graz's Arnold Shwarzenegger Stadium. At the end of summer 2000, Hapoel was hammered 3-0 by Sturm and lost the return leg at Bloomfield, 2-1. The same season was the Austrian team's best in European competition - beating Feyenoord in the third qualifying round and finishing the first group stage in first place, ahead of Galatasaray, Glasgow Rangers and Monaco. Even in the second group stage, the Austrians were not humiliated by Valencia, Manchester United or Panathinaikos.
The Sturm Graz team of two years ago was much better than the current squad, however, with a powerful forward line that included Ivice Vastic, Hans Reinmaier and Roman Malic. In the meantime, Vastic, perhaps the greatest Austrian player of the past decade, has moved on to the Japanese league, Malic was sold to a Greek team, and even Reinmaier has moved on to pastures new. One name that still remains is the team's veteran coach, Ivice Osim, 61, who is about to start his ninth season in charge.
Sturm owes all its recent successes to Osim, including two national championships and three state cups. Nonetheless, there are those at Sturm Graz who believe Osim has been less effective at the helm than they would have hoped.
The Austrian daily newspaper Kurier reported Friday that Christoph Daum is being considered as coach for the Austrian first-division club and exploratory talks have already taken place. The paper quoted Daum, former coach of the Istanbul side Besiktas, as saying that he had been in touch with Sturm Graz for quite some time.
Bosnian Ivica Osim is said to be thinking about possibly returning home to Sarajevo, especially after the Austrian team lost their first match of the new championship season 4-0 at home to Rapid Vienna.
Daum had at one time been in line to take over as German national team coach, until it was revealed that he had tested positive for cocaine consumption.
The report has been officially denied, but it is clear that an early exit from the Champions League would hasten Osim's departure.
In the meantime, Osim has said he believes Haifa will beat Belshina in the second qualifying round, and that the Israeli side is "a dangerous opponent. They are better than Hapoel Tel Aviv, who we beat two years ago."
The dates and locations of the two games between Strum Graz and either Haifa or Belshina are yet to be finalized. The first leg, in which Sturm Graz will be the away team, will take place - somewhere or other - on August 13 or 14. The return leg in Austria is due to be played on August 27 or 28, but Sturm will have to find some arrangement with Graz's second team - Grazer AK - which, if it beats Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova in the second round, is due to host Lokomotiv Moscow on the same date.
Haifa has a similar problem. If the Israeli champion plays its first game in Nicosia (August 13 or 14), the match could clash with Apoel Nicosia's game against AEK Athens, assuming it beats Maribor of Slovenia.