On paper, Hapoel Tel Aviv enters tonight's critical game in the best position it could imagine. It is the host club, is facing the least experienced team in its group, and needs just a draw to advance to the knockout stage. Sounds easy? Don't be so sure.
Mlada Boleslav is far from being a pushover. The Czech club exhibits many of the characteristics that give Israeli clubs problems - Mlada is disciplined, fast and tough, its players are in great physical shape, and the team doesn't have a tendency of buckling under even when it's behind.
Yitzhak Shum's attacking style matches up well against Mlada, which unlike most top Czech clubs plays a more aggressive game. But Hapoel shouldn't expect a cakewalk, particularly since it suffers from a weak defense that has given up an average of two goals a game in group play till now.
"In addition to all of the traditional characteristics of Czech soccer - discipline, toughness and speed - Mlada is also very technically sound," says Elesh Role, a writer for Mlada's local sports newspaper Sport. "For a club that's making its first European appearance, it's learning very quickly and not worried about bigger, more famous opponents.
"The one exception may have been in Istanbul against Galatasaray in the Champions League preliminaries. Most of the players had their first experience playing against such an enormous, loud and hostile crowd, and the team was humiliated, giving up five goals. In earlier group play against Olympic Marseille and Rapid Bucharest, things were a lot better. At Bucharest, Mlada held its own against an aggressive crowd earning a draw, and there's no reason it can't succeed against Tel Aviv."
"Learning quickly" is a common denominator among Czech journalists when it comes to Mlada. "You could say that strikers Mark Ulic and Mark Matevsky have moved up a notch due to their European play," Role adds. "Mlada is rapidly progressing also due to its aggressive style of play as opposed to typical Czech soccer. Perhaps Hapoel's style isn't ideal for Mlada, but manager Dusan Uhrin Jr. will try to neutralize Tel Aviv with a fast-pace, aggressive game, the kind of game he likes."
Hapoel will face a club that is in good shape, and knows how to turn games around when it's behind. The team's strong mental makeup helped it come in second place in the Czech premier league last year behind Slovan Liberec and ahead of powers like Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague.
"In terms of aggressiveness, very few Czech clubs can match up against Mlada," says Jacob Konceny, a sportswriter for the weekly magazine Hartik. "There's no doubt that the team is better at initiating than defending. Only Jan Reinich among the team's defenders is fast. The others will have a tough time against a highly mobile striker."
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