Haifa to Debut v. Man U. at Old Trafford

Who could even have imagined a more fantastic scenario for Israeli soccer - a debut in the "Theater of Dreams" for Maccabi Haifa in the European Champions League against the world's most popular club.

Who could even have imagined a more fantastic scenario for Israeli soccer - a debut in the "Theater of Dreams" for Maccabi Haifa in the European Champions League against the world's most popular club.

Maccabi will take its first steps on the continent's major soccer stage at Old Trafford, which is one of the greatest and most prestigious soccer venues on the planet.

The 67,000 capacity ground will host the first game in the competition on Wednesday, September 18.

Imagine Raimondas Zautautaz marking David Beckham, Walid Badir on Ryan Giggs, Arik Benado on Ruud van Nistelrooy and Nenad Prelja and Giovanni Rosso up against Paul Scholes and Roy Keane.

What a pity Ayegbeni Yakoubu won't be there - for the meantime, at least.

Haifa's chances of advancing to the second stage of the Champions League, let alone win a match, look almost impossible.

Against United there hardly seems a chance to do anything, and one can only hope that the "Theater of Dreams" doesn't turn into the "Theater of Nightmares."

When considering that the second team in the group - Bayer Leverkusen - also hails from one of the leading leagues in world soccer, Haifa's task of holding their own appears more or less doomed.

Bayer is not the force it was last season, when it had several of the top players in Europe, including Michael Balack and Ze Roberto da Silva have left for Bayern Munich, weakening the team slightly.

While the Germans may perhaps be easier prey for United, who were ousted by them in last season's semi-finals, there is no guarantee that it will make any difference against Haifa.

Greek Champion Olympiakos Piraeus is cartainly one of the toughest teams from the third tier in the competition. The Greek outfit is making its fifth consecutive appearance in the competition and could conceivably be considered as one of the higher-ranked teams, possibly from the second tier.

Karambeu, Giovanni, Djorjevic and Ze Elias are proven players on the European stage and will present a major obstacle for Haifa.

As Maccabi will have to host its games in Nicosia, the game against Olympiakos will almost certainly become an "away" fixture, as the Cypriot crowd comes out to support the Greek outfit, which is one of the most popular teams on the island, leaving Haifa's supporters in the minority.

Shahar delighted

Yaakov Shahar, president of Maccabi Haifa, speaking in Monaco yesteday was unable to contain his delight at the outcome of the draw: "I have always supported Manchester United and they are my favorite overseas team. I was desperately hoping that we would be drawn against them," he said.

"I am just absolutely delighted for my club and for Israeli football that we are in the Champions League for the first time and this can only benefit football in my country which has been steadily improving over the last five or 10 years.

"It is extremely unfortunate that we have to play our home matches in Cyprus but that is the situation now."

But Haifa first have to visit United's formidable Old Trafford ground for the opening group game on September 18.

The club's general manager summed up the feelings of players, staff and fans when he said all Israel had hoped they would draw Manchester United in the Champions League's opening phase.

"It is so exciting for us, so fantastic, nobody can believe it," said Itamar Chizik.

"Of course, it is sad that we have to play all of our home games in Nicosia (in Cyprus), but that does not detract from our happiness with the draw.

"The whole of Israel wanted this, I think, and they all wanted us to bring Manchester United to them. So, now it has happened. The stadium, in Nicosia, is a good one. It is a new one and it holds 25,000 people and the pitch is good.

"So, I think everyone will be happy to go there. It is only 25 minutes by plane to fly there. This is what we said we wanted and this is what we have got."

Chizik added that it was "like a miracle" for his club to have drawn Manchester United in group F along with Bayer Leverkusen and Olympiakos.

"It will be a special occasion for all of our players," Chizik said of the game at Old Trafford. "A very memorable day.

"For me this is almost unbelievable. I have always been a Manchester United supporter. I have followed their results now for 30 years and I love them more than any other team in England."

The United party in Monte Carlo were also content with the group.

Chief executive Peter Kenyon said they were happy not to have any long journeys in the opening phase and pleased to be going to Cyprus to play Haifa.

But Kenyon warned that he expected a very difficult pair of fixtures against Leverkusen.

Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmoeller said he did not expect to defeat United again because his team had been seriously weakened since last season by the departure of key midfielders Ballack and Ze Roberto to Bayern Munich.

"I am pleased to play against a great team like Manchester United that has kept all of its great players," he said.

"We are not so strong, but we will do our best even if I know I cannot expect another great result. But we have some very good youngsters."