This weekend's draw for the final Europa League qualification round has produced relatively easy ties for the two Israeli representatives.
Premier League champion Maccabi Tel Aviv will play Greek side PAOK Thessaloniki in a two-leg Europa League qualification playoff later this month. However PAOK could return to the Champions League qualifiers, in which case Maccabi will automatically qualify for the Europa League group stage. Maccabi Haifa meanwhile has drawn the Romanian team Astra Giurgiu in the qualifying round.
One Maccabi Tel Aviv player described the loss to Basel in the Champions League qualifying round as a dream that had been shattered, while defining qualification for the second-tier Europa League as a "mini dream." Following the draw, in which the name PAOK Thessaloniki came out the hat, Maccabi's mini-dream certainly looks attainable. Maccabi was unseeded, yet received one of the most comfortable opponents they could have wished for. Maccabi, which nine years ago defeated PAOK on the way to qualifying for the Champions League group stage, will host the opening leg of the tie on August 22. The return game a week later in Greece will be played in front of empty stands, after EUFA punished PAOK for a riot by fans in a previous European game.
However there is a chance that the Greek team will be reinstated into the Champions League after Ukrainian team Metalist Kharkiv, which defeated PAOK in the Champions League qualifiers, was expelled last week from the tournament after its sports director was implicated in a 2008 match-fixing case. This would guarantee Maccabi a place in the Europa League group stage. A EUFA disciplinary tribunal is expected to decide on the issue on Tuesday.
Like other Greek sports teams, PAOK is undergoing a severe cash crisis as the country's economy collapses. The club's new owner Ivan Savvadis, who took over in the summer, has invested in the club on condition that severe spending cutbacks are implemented, in addition to introducing a policy of minimizing the number of foreign players on the team roster and basing the team around local players.
Not that PAOK has no overseas talents, such as Uruguayan midfielder Pablo Garcia, formerly of Real Madrid, and several Spanish players, notably the defender Inigo Lopez, goalkeeper Jacobo and the midfielder Lucas Perez. The outstanding Greek player in the team is its captain and national team striker Dimitris Salpingidis, who played for PAOK as a youth and returned to its ranks in 2010 after a successful stint with Panathinaikos. The team's Dutch coach Huub Stevens, who previously coached Bundesliga sides Schalke 04 and Hamburg, and PSV Eindhoven of the Dutch league, was appointed in July after he was fired from his second stint at the helm at Schalke.
"This is an easier team [to beat] than Spartak Moscow, which has already begun its league season, and this could give us a certain advantage on paper," Maccabi midfielder Maharan Radi said yesterday after the draw was announced. "But in soccer there are surprises and nothing is certain. We have to be prepared to play our type of game, like we did after the 32nd minute against Basel. We hope we will be the better team. I don't know whether it's advantageous to host the first leg of the tie, because the pressure will be on us to produce a result. On the other hand, if we win the game the pressure will be on the Greeks."
Maccabi Haifa, which overcame its two preliminary qualification hurdles, eased past Latvian outfit Ventspils 3-0 on Saturday at the Kiryat Eliezer stadium to set up a third qualification round tie with unseeded Astra Giurgiu of Romania. But although Arik Benado's charges are the clear favorites, Astra promises to be no pushover. The first game will be played in Kiryat Eliezer.
"What we know about Astra is that it's a good and strong team. We have two weeks to learn all about the team and will do everything to overcome them," said Benado.
The opposition will feature two familiar faces – the Ghanians Seidu Yahaya and Sadat Bukari previously played in Haifa's green jersey. Astra is debuting in the tournament after several years spent languishing in Romania's lower leagues, and was only promoted to the senior division in 2009, achieving a best-ever fourth place last season.