From left, Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Avihai Yadin, Gil Vermouth, Itay Shechter, and Eran Zahavi last season.
From left, Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Avihai Yadin, Gil Vermouth, Itay Shechter, and Eran Zahavi last season. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Last season, Kazakh champion Aktobe's dreams of reaching the group stage of the Champions League were cruelly extinguished by Maccabi Haifa, which came back from a 3-0 deficit to win at Kiryat Eliezer in dramatic fashion.

This time around, Aktobe is fully aware of the daunting challenge it faces tonight when Eli Guttman and his high-powered Hapoel Tel Aviv visit the Central Asian republic for the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round.

"I won't reveal what I believe to be the difference between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv," said Aktobe coach Vladimir Mukhanov, "but I will say two things: Hapoel is certainly no worse than Haifa, and it is even better when it comes to ball control, without question."

Mukhanov spoke to reporters at a press conference yesterday on the eve of the highly anticipated match with the Israeli Premier League champion, which easily advanced to the third qualifying round after disposing of Bosnian side Zeljeznicar last week.

One journalist asked the coach: "Did you see how Hapoel scored five goals in the first half against the Bosnians?"

"I saw the footage of the game and I saw how difficult it was [for the Bosnian team] to play [at Bloomfield]," the coach said. "The weather in Tel Aviv is very rough and we have to strive to get there with a positive result [in tonight's game]."

Mukhanov is relying on former Maccabi Tel Aviv player Alexei Kosolapov, the now-retired soccer star from Russia who played the last two seasons of his career at Aktobe, to help crack "the Israeli code."

"Hapoel is a clear favorite against us," Mukhanov said. "We wanted to get Dinamo Zagreb in the draw, but not Hapoel because of the climate. Obviously we are not going to give up without a fight. In my view, my players will be more motivated than the players on the opposing side."

The coach said he did not seek advice from Rubin Kazan, the Russian club that ousted Hapoel from the Europa League round of 32 last season. "I didn't see any point [in trying to obtain] obsolete information," he said. "Does Hapoel have weaknesses? At first glance, it doesn't, but we will look for them anyway."

Midfielder Konstantin Golovskoy is doubtful for tonight's match due to an injury he sustained during a local league game. Mukhanov has yet to decide whether to place the experienced Murat Tleshev as the target man or the youngster Evgeniy Averchenko.