Maccabi Haifa did not draw what it had hoped for on Friday, on the road to its third visit to the Champions League group stage.
Instead, Maccabi Haifa will have to play Racing Genk, which on paper was the second best of the four teams the Israeli team could have drawn at the FIFA offices in Switzerland. Genk, the Belgian champion featuring Israeli Elyaniv Barda, will travel to the National Stadium in Ramat Gan for the first leg August 17 and then host the Greens August 23. While the winner moves on to the group stage, the loser drops into the playoff stage of the Europa League.
"At these levels there are no easy draws," said Maccabi Haifa coach Elisha Levy. "We'll study the Belgians in the coming days and arrive prepared to do everything to get by them."
Yaniv Katan, the captain, added: "In the playoffs, every game requires work. Whoever wants to reach the Champions League can't expect any breaks."
Genk, the three-time champion of Belgium, has reached the group stage once, when it collected four points - including a draw at home against Real Madrid. Coached by Franky Vercauteren, the former star of Anderlecht and Nantes, Genk looks to be the favorite over Haifa. The team successfully mixes creative playing with discipline and character. In the last round, Genk twice trailed Partizan Belgrade, yet managed to bounce back for a home victory 2-1 and score an equalizer for a 1-1 draw in Serbia.
Barda, the Genk striker who played for Maccabi Haifa from 2003 to 2005, said he wanted anyone but his former team. "I'm disappointed with the draw," he said. "I wanted and hoped that Haifa would be in the group stage and I even thought about the possibility of us both being in the same group. To meet them in the playoff stage is the last thing that I wanted, but it's what the draw determined for us. There are no favorites at this stage, but maybe we'll have an advantage because the second leg will take place in Genk."
Barda added that before he could think about preparing for Haifa, he had to get past Genk's league match, which was played yesterday, and Israel's friendly against Ivory Coast, scheduled for Wednesday.
Though Genk overall may be stronger, it too has its set of concerns about its defense and its goalkeeper. During the summer, Genk sold its phenomenal goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea, which sent him on loan to Atletico Madrid. Another keeper, Koen Casteels, moved over to TSG Hoffenheim. The remaining starting goalkeeper, Hungarian Laszlo Koteles, is deemed by the local press to be good, but not the kind to save the team at the crucial moment.
The team brought in Brazilian defender Nadson from Sheriff Tiraspo this summer to beef up the back line alongside youngster Torben Joneleit.
If defense is Genk's Achilles' Heel, its strong side is along the front line. Thomas Buffel is seasoned, having played for Rangers and Feyenoord Rotterdam in the past. Other strikers include Jelle Vossen and Marvin Ogunjimi, both members of the Belgian national team. Together with Barda, they form a formidable foursome that will be hard for Haifa to handle.
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