Israelis Face Tough Tests in Group Stage

Soccer / Europa League draw

The draw for the group stage of the Europa League was made on Friday and the two Israeli teams in the competition, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, were handed tough opponents.

Hapoel Tel Aviv, which progressed to the group stages thanks to a 7-1 aggregate win over Luxembourg side Dudelange, was drawn in Group 2, alongside last season's winner, Atletico Madrid, which also crushed Chelsea 4-1 in the Super Cup on Friday. Czech side FC Viktoria Plzen and Portuguese outfit Academica de Coimbra complete the group.

Kiryat Shmona, which failed to get through to the group stage of the Champions League, was drawn in an even harder group: French giants Lyon, Athletic Bilbao of Spain and Czech team Sparta Prague.

For Tel Aviv, playing against Atletico at the Vicente Calderon Stadium, with a capacity of 55,000, will be an experience to remember, as will coming up against Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, one of the hottest properties in European soccer at the moment. It's hard to see the Reds finishing above Atletico, leaving the State Cup holder in a dogfight with Plzen for a place in the knockout stages. Academica, meanwhile, is playing in Europe for the first time and is tipped to finish bottom of the group.

Hapoel's assistant coach, Shavit Elimelech, described the draw as "sexy," adding: "Falcao is one of the best forwards in Europe. We know we'll have to beat Plzen to progress to the next stage."

For last season's Israeli league champion, which is playing in the Europa League for the first time, there are mixed feelings - of missed opportunities and pride. Having been eliminated from the Champions League by BATE Borisov, Kiryat Shmona knew that it would be given a tough draw - and that's just what it got.

The unfashionable team from the Galilee starts its campaign away to Bilbao, last season's losing finalist in this competition, followed by a home tie against the might of Lyon, with all of its experience from competing in the Champions League. The third team in the group, Sparta Prague, is also a veteran competitor in the Champions League and should be too strong for Gili Landau and his players. It will be a major shock if the Israeli champion snags one of the top two places in the group and progresses to the next stage.

"It's a tough draw," Landau admitted Friday. "We're facing a team that made it to the final of the competition last season, the winner of the French Cup and the team that finished second in the Czech league. On the one hand, we will come up against some of the best players in Europe, which will be a fantastic experience. But on the other, it will be very hard to get a result. We still believe in our ability, however, and I am sure we can give a good account of ourselves."