The bottom line is that Europe isn't overly excited about the UEFA Cup group stage. The thing is there is a much more exciting group stage competition going on at the same time - the Champions League.
The UEFA executive has stretched out the second round of the competition like only it knows how. Instead of a classic home and away cup competition with half the teams going out, UEFA has given us four matches with the top three teams with each group advancing to the next stage.
Their aim is two-fold. To increase revenues from ticket sales and television broadcasts and to prevent the big teams who didn't make it into the Champions League from being knocked out early on.
But Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv aren't big teams and what's good for clubs from Zurich, London, Frankfurt or Vienna is good for us. Not to mention Feyenoord, Ajax, Seville, Palermo, Parma, Besiktas or Fenerbahce who are taking the competition very seriously.
Despite having made the odd appearance in the Champions League group stage, Israeli teams don't really belong there. Haifa doesn't belong, despite some good results and Maccabi Tel Aviv certainly doesn't. Europe's second-tier competition is the right place for them to advance. Hapoel and Haifa have proved so in the past. They will, we hope, take another step forward this time around.
It is possible. Hapoel has landed a more than reasonable draw. Panathinaikos, Paris St. Germain and Rapid Bucharest are teams in crisis who are out of form in their domestic leagues. Hapoel isn't brilliant either, but coach Itzhak Shum's experience can and should lead Tel Aviv to another red march on the continent. Mlada Boleslav, knocked out Marseille in the previous round warn the pessimists. So what, Hapoel took out Chelsea and Parma in the past. Haifa has a more difficult task. But here, as well, the top three seeds in the group are struggling at home. Haifa's problem seems to be in deciding what it wants: a fourth straight domestic title, success in Europe, or to fight on both fronts.
The short history of the UEFA Cup group stage shows that six points is enough to advance. With Hapoel facing relatively weak opposition in its home matches, if I were a Tel Aviv fan I would be optimistic.
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