Soccer / Defensive Hub

What do Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly, Giovanni Trapattoni, Hennes Weisweiler, Bobby Robson, Louis Van Gaal, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerard Houllier, Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Dick Advocaat have in common with Huub Stevens, head coach of Red Bull Salzburg, Maccabi Haifa's opponents in the playoff round of the Champions League qualifiers?

Just like the other names on that illustrious list, Salzburg's Dutch coach has won the UEFA Cup - a feat he achieved with Schalke 04 in 1997. But unlike the rest of the coaches listed above, Stevens also won the same tournament as a player, wearing the red and white stripes of PSV Eindhoven in 1978.

Huub - short for Hubertus - has a long track record in European soccer, as a defender for Fortuna Sittard and, most famously, for PSV. He also played 18 times for the Dutch national team, including 1980 European championships. But he is perhaps best known as a coach who has, over past 20 years, taken charge of several teams in the Netherlands and Germany.

Today he is stuck in the relatively unglamorous Austrian league, but this is not something that bothers him. "Every league, and every game, is a challenge," he said in an interview with Haaretz ahead of next week's Champions League playoff.

Stevens is a busy man these days. He only agreed to give the interview after being persuaded by Red Bull's spokesman. His answers are honest, if extremely laconic. Asked what he knows about his team's opponent, he says that he is "getting more and more information about Haifa and about Israel soccer. Israel does very good work with young players and in supporting young talents, and Maccabi is a very experienced Champions League team."

More experienced than Salzburg, perhaps. The only time the Austrian side made it into the group stage of the Champions League was 1994 - before the Red Bull takeover, when the team was known as Casino Salzburg - and to get that far, they had to beat Maccabi Haifa. The Austrian press is urging Salzburg to repeat that victory over Haifa, but Stevens' thoughts lie elsewhere. "We are already assured of a place in the group stage of one European competition - the Europa League - but of course we want more and will do whatever we can to make it into the group stage of the Champions League. On the other hand, the Austrian league is no less important to us and we want to win the title for the third time in four years. That is just as important."

Salzburg has not made an impressive start to the season; in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League it has managed two home draws (against Irish side Bohemians and Dinamo Zagreb), and only progressed because of slender away wins. In the domestic league, Salzburg managed three wins and one defeat in its opening four games, but has looked far from impressive, especially at home.

Do you have a problem with home matches? This time the second leg will be played in the August heat of the Middle East, in front of 35,000 fans.

"It's true that we have had problems at home this season, but the playoff will be decided by 180 minutes of soccer - at least. I don't think the fans will be more intimidating or more influential than the Zagreb fans. In any case, most of my players are very experienced and have played at international level."

To what extent will Salzburg's artificial pitch be detrimental to Haifa, and how much of an advantage will it give you?

"For strong, technical teams there is no disadvantage. It only affects teams that are weaker in terms of technical ability."

There is a sense in Israel that Haifa is a technically better team than Salzburg. Do you agree?

"Absolutely not. Do you?"

Stevens also does not think it's a problem that 17 members of his 25-man squad are not Austrians ("This is the nature of soccer these days," he explains), and gets angry when reminded that his team's budget is around five times larger than Haifa's. "How do you know about our budget?" he asks. "In Austria we don't discuss such things."

But Stevens does agree about one point: that the fact that Red Bull has already played four matches in the Austrian league gives them a small advantage going into the match.

Perhaps because of his past as a defender, Stevens also plays a much more defensive style than his predecessors at Salzburg - Kurt Jara, Giovanni Trapattoni and Co Adriaanse. The Austrian media has reported that Red Bull's star striker, Marc Janko, who scored 39 league goals last season, is frustrated with Stevens' system and has fallen out with his coach. Stevens does not deny that he is more defensively minded than his predecessors, but is quick to deny any talk of a rift with Janko.

"He's an excellent player; he's one of 25 players in my squad, but he is definitely one of more important ones. He has been slightly unlucky so far this season, but he is an exceptional striker, as you and everyone else will soon find out."