LEEDS, England - Hapoel Tel Aviv will carry a double burden into tonight's UEFA Cup clash against Leeds United at Elland Road.
The team's great successes in this competition last season have whetted the appetites of fans and players alike, while Maccabi Haifa's famous victory over Manchester United on Tuesday has given Tel Aviv's own Red Devils something to aim for.
Everyone in the Hapoel delegation to Yorkshire has nothing but praise for Haifa's achievement, but are quick to point out that there can be no comparison between Manchester's reserve team and Leeds, at home, in front of a sell-out crowd, for the most important game of its season so far.
"There's no similarity between Leeds United and the inexperienced and complacent Manchester United team that played against Haifa," said Gabor Halmai, Hapoel's Hungarian midfielder. "For Leeds, the two games against us are of vital importance. They are very ambitious and they are favorites to win. But let's not forget that we were underdogs against Chelsea as well."
Halmai believes that Haifa's win will give the Tel Aviv players an extra little stimulus, but says that motivation would have been high in any case. "Haifa's victory helps us to believe that an Israeli team can record excellent results, that we are only playing against human beings, not machines."
Hapoel captain Shimon Gershon knows full well that Leeds will not be giving any 17-year-olds a chance to play in the first team tonight. "Leeds will be playing with their strongest line-up," he said yesterday. "Apart from that, Leeds is under pressure in the league, so they will want to put that behind them."
Gershon believes that right from the first minute, Leeds will be pressuring the Hapoel players. "We've accumulated a lot of European experience, and I'm sure we can withstand the pressure. As always, I'm optimistic about this game."
The Hapoel players watched a recording of Leeds' 4-1 home defeat to Arsenal last month, and Gershon saw little reason to fear the English team's defense. "The pace of our strikers will let us take advantage of the fact that their defenders are not the greatest. We can surprise them."
Nonetheless, Gershon knows that Leeds are clear favorites to win tonight, and in the return leg in Cyprus, partly because Hapoel will not enjoy true home advantage. He still believes, however, that Tel Aviv can get a "good result" at Elland Road, and that means at least a draw.
Halmai, who says he isn't even thinking about a win, is more circumspect. He says that a draw would be "a fantastic result."
Hapoel has arrived in Leeds at a particularly tough time for the West Yorkshire club. New coach Terry Venables is still struggling, with Leeds having taken just two points from the last five games, leaving them 12th in the premier league - their lowest position for 21 months. But Venables is refusing to let disgruntled supporters hijack his long-term plans to turn Leeds into genuine title challengers.
Tonight's game will be the first time Leeds have played at home since fans began chanting former boss David O'Leary's name. Venables, the ex-England coach, took over from O'Leary in the close-season and has warned that his revolution at Leeds will take time.
Venables says that he will just have to handle the fans' concerns. "It's my job to handle any complaints about the side," he told reporters yesterday. "But it's much more helpful if the fans are on your side, especially for the players. We are trying to change things around. The tussle and real job is to make it right. I could have tinkered with things as they were and maybe do okay. But I felt it needed more than that and I'm pleased I've gone down that route. We have to get ourselves right, properly right, and not just okay now and again. We want to build a solid basis, as we have to try and catch the top teams and we have to go about it differently. The future will tell whether we get it right or not. I'm quietly pleased with what is happening."
Venables hopes his restructuring work will inspire Leeds to a win over the Israeli side.
"They still have the majority of the players that beat Chelsea last season and that means you have to give them respect," Venables said. "Technically they are a very good side and we have to be on our form to get a result against them."
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