Soccer / Coach of German Leader Hamburg Warns Hapoel Tel Aviv Will Be No Easy Prey

Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia won't let anyone make light of Hapoel Tel Aviv, which the Bundesliga leader hosts tonight in Europa League group stage competition.

At yesterday's press conference, Labbadia said, "After the draw, I said that our group is strong and difficult. Maybe not everyone believed that, but then we lost against Rapid [Vienna]. Further proof is that Hapoel defeated Celtic," he said of Tel Aviv's home upset two weeks ago.

Hamburg currently leads the Bundesliga with 17 points, ahead of Bayer Leverkusen on goal difference. In their last domestic match, the Rothosen ("Red Shorts") prevailed 1-0 over Bayern Munich at home, the same Bayern squad which handed Maccabi Haifa a 3-0 defeat two weeks ago during UEFA Champions League play.

With Haifa leading Israel's Premier League, and Tel Aviv ranked 8th among its 16 teams, does Hapoel even have a prayer tonight? Hamburg's coach and players seem to think it does.

"We'll have to contend with a very disciplined opponent on a tactical level," defender Dennis Aogo told reporters yesterday. "We have to win, in order to keep the positive momentum from last weekend," he said, referring to the win over Bayern.

Despite its domestic success, Hamburg sits at the bottom of Europa League Group C (Hapoel is second), having lost its first group stage match 3-0 to Rapid. The German press is virtually unanimous in agreeing that the loss was "an unfortunate malfunction," and that Hamburg remains the favorite to top Group C and advance to the knockout stage.

Last year, Hamburg reached the semifinal of the UEFA Cup (the precursor to Europa), where it lost to fellow German club Werder Bremen. This year it hopes to take the next step, and reach next spring's tournament final - which, as luck would have it, will be held at its very own 57,000-seat Nordbank Arena.

Hamburg's mission in domestic play is just as clear. It hasn't taken a Bundesliga title since 1983, when it also claimed the UEFA Champions League (then known as the European Cup).

Labbadia will likely field his usual 4-4-2 formation, with Mladen Petric in front along with Marcus Berg (recently acquired from Groningen for 10.5 million euros). Ivorian back Guy Demel has recovered from the injury he sustained against Bayern's Franck Ribery, but is not yet expected to play.

Some 30,000 fans are expected to show up for the match.