Soccer / Europa League / Hap. TA, Kiryat Shmona Prepare for Spanish Powerhouses

Atletico Madrid brings much-weakened side to Bloomfield; Bilbao clear favorite against reigning Israeli champion

Hapoel Tel Aviv's opponent in the Europa League this evening (kick-off 8 P.M. at Jaffa's Bloomfield Stadium ), defending champion Atletico Madrid, arrived in Israel yesterday without several of its star players, including Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who is being rested for the game. Coach Diego Simeone and several other club officials tooK the opportunity to visit Jerusalem's holy Christian sites and Western Wall.

Simeone vehemently rejected claims that he has brought a weakened squad for the game and is not taking his Israeli opponents seriously. "We have very good players here, even after I left some behind," he said yesterday. "We're a very strong and competitive team, and I want to give all the players a chance to compete for positions."

Simeone proved that he has been studying up on the Hapoel lineup, citing the names of Hanan Maman, Tal Ben Haim and Omer Damari among others. "We didn't come here to give an exhibition, we came here to win," he said, then pointed out that Atletico has not lost in 13 successive European games.

The good news for Hapoel is that coach Nitzan Shirazi, who is recovering from a serious operation, was well enough to hold a press conference yesterday. "I'm putting my personal story to one side," Shirazi told reporters. "I'm just glad to be back. We have to respect Atletico but must not be scared of them. I have yet to decide whether to change our lineup for such a strong opposition. This game is quite a challenge for us. I hope the players will produce a game that they won't forget for a very long time."

Regarding the six missing first-team Atletico players, Shirazi had this to say; "I don't know which is better for us - a tired player or a hungry one. I'll leave the issue of rotating the squad to Simeone."

Hapoel captain Walid Badir said: "Falcao? All our fans are interested in is that we win. We're happy that Nitzan is here with us and that he's feeling better. Our aim is to come into the game prepared, that the fans enjoy themselves and that we get results. We want to go far in this competition."

Atletico's Uraguayan defender Cristian Rodriguez said yesterday that the team takes the Europa Cup as seriously as it does the Spanish league. Atletico has won the Europa League twice in the competition's first three years, beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final on May 9 in Bucharest this year, with Falcao scoring a brace. On August 31, Atletico beat Chelsea 4-1 for the 2012 UEFA Super Cup, with a first-half hat trick by Falcao.

Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona will also have a tough game tonight against Spanish opposition in the form of Athletic Bilbao. The Basque country team's undoubted star is striker Fernando Llorente, last year's top scorer with 29 goals. Last weekend he came on as a substitute against Espanyol in the 69th minute for his first appearance of the season, scored within 60 seconds and added two more in a thrilling 3-3 draw.

"I expect my players to develop and upgrade every facet of their game," Kiryat Shmona coach Gil Landau said in a pre-game press conference in Spain yesterday. "In order to get results out of this game we have to be at our best."

Kiryat Shmona captain Adrian Rochet said: "We know that Bilbao are the favorite, but we want to score a goal in this game. In soccer you always aim to win, no matter how strong the opposition."