Soccer / Mac. Haifa Closer to Lucrative Group Stage

European soccer's governing body will bump Maccabi Haifa up from the second to the third and final qualifying round.

Maccabi Haifa is set to benefit from UEFA's doubt.

After last season, when Liverpool won the Champions League but failed to qualify for a chance to defend its crown this season, European soccer's governing body decided to save a place in each edition of the competition for the reigning champion.

Thanks to the fact that this season's champion will come from a country that sends four representatives into the Champions League, the champion of the nation ranked 16th on the continent (Israel) will be bumped up from the second to the third and final qualifying round.

Most of the European leagues are over. There are still matches to be played in Spain, and in Romanian and Bulgaria the identity of the champion is still not yet known. Nonetheless, it is already clear which eight teams make up Haifa's possible opponents for a place in the money-spinning group stage.

The Israeli champion will not be among the seeded teams, and will therefore be drawn again one of the 16 seeds. Of the seeds, the identities of 11 are already known.

Arsenal will also be there, should the London side lose tomorrow night's final against Barcelona; and the identities of one or two more teams will emerge tonight, depending on the outcome of the games in the Spanish league.

There are only limited options regarding the identities of the remaining teams. Inter Milan, Liverpool, Ajax, Celtic, Lille, Benfica, CSKA Moscow, AEK Athens, Hamburg, Galatasaray and Shakhtar Donetsk are the 11 that have already booked their places. The team that finishes third in Spain - either Real Madrid or Valencia - will also be there.

Fiorentina, which finished fourth in the Italian league, is waiting to see which teams win the Romanian league (with four teams still in the running, and three matches each left to play, the Romanian league is the continent's most competitive) and the Bulgarian title (either Levski or CSKA Sofia) to find out whether it will be seeded.

Dynamo Kiev starts its campaign in the second qualifying round; but if it makes it through to the third round, it will be a seeded team.

In any event, there are some weak teams in among the giants, and it is not beyond belief that Maccabi Haifa can make a return to the group stages of the Champions League.