Champions League Quest for Maccabi TA Starts in Slovakia

Hapoel TA vs. Armenian team; Maccabi Haifa vs. Welsh club

State Cup holder Hapoel Ramat Gan is still waiting to know who its initial opponent will be in European play, but the first matchups for the other three Israeli representatives vying for glory in Europe were set on Friday in a draw conducted by soccer authorities in Switzerland.

There can be no excuse for Hapoel Tel Aviv failing to pass its first hurdle against its Armenian opponent FC Banants in qualifying round matches for the UEFA Cup scheduled for August 14 and August 28. It will be the third year in a row that Hapoel Tel Aviv comes up against an Armenian rival in UEFA action.

Banants, which is making its maiden appearance in European competition, should not pose much of a threat. The combined annual salaries of Hapoel's coach Dror Kashtan and veteran midfielder Yossi Abuksis exceeds the entire budget of the Armenian club.

Maccabi Haifa should have even an easier time disposing of Cwmbran Town, the Welsh semi-pro team it drew in Friday's lottery. The Welsh club, with an annual budget of only $250,000 (some $50,000 less than Kashtan's salary) regards the matchup with Maccabi Haifa as nearly an impossible mission, and is mainly looking forward to savoring the experience of participating in a UEFA qualifier.

Maccabi Tel Aviv was also lucky not to draw a more formidable opponent - such as Rapid Bucharest or Swedish champs Djurgardens - in the lottery for the Champions League second qualifying round, also conducted in Switzerland on Friday. The Premier League titleholder will face MSK Zilina of Slovakia.

Still, while Zilina is not particularly talented or technically adept, it is a fast and tough team that could make trouble for a slightly superior rival, especially if that rival must host its home games on foreign soil.

The first leg against Zilina is slated for July 30, with the second leg on August 6.