Soccer / Mac. Haifa Issues Rallying Call

Maccabi Haifa owner Yaakov Shahar has made an impassioned call for fans to fill Kiryat Eliezer Stadium for tonight's Champions League third qualifying round, second leg clash with FC Aktobe of Kazakhstan. The Israeli champions eked out a goalless draw in the first leg, and Shahar says the players need the support of a vociferous crowd to urge them on.

However, Maccabi Haifa officials have been disappointed by relatively sluggish ticket sales ahead of the crucial encounter. As of yesterday, only 8,000 tickets had been sold, although sources close to the club say they expect a last-minute rush at the stadium's ticket booths.

Long-time fan Avner Yosef says this is because the Kazakh champions are hardly a household name. "There's no glamour in them. It's not an attractive name - and anyway, it's the height of summer and many people are on vacation," he says.

Club captain Yaniv Katan will open for Maccabi tonight, although the club's medical team has decided that the player will be sent for a hernia operation as soon as its European campaign ends.

In recent days the club has become aware that its captain is approaching the limits of his ability and the injury threatens to end his season prematurely. "He cannot go on much longer," says a club official. "He cannot take the strain of full training and is only at 80 percent of his ability."

Coach Elisha Levy will hold his final tactical discussion with his charges this morning. "We must attack from the outset and try to get an early goal," he is expected to tell the players. Judging by recent practice sessions, Levy will open with the same lineup as in the first leg, with Muha Ghadir playing a wide role in attack.

"We feel a great responsibility," Levy told a press conference yesterday. "We have studied our opponents, learned the lessons of the first game and will do all in our power to reach the next [qualifying] round. We have to win - that is clear."

Katan said that the fans' role will be critical. "I hope and believe that the stadium will be packed and the crowd will push us on to victory. We believe in ourselves and are capable of doing it," he told journalists.

"We rate Maccabi Haifa highly, but are not scared of them," retorted Aktobe's manager Vladimir Mukhanov. "The word 'fear' does not exist in our lexicon."

Aktobe's captain, Samat Smakov, described Haifa as "one of the best teams I have played against."

The Kazakh champions are concerned about a niggling injury to midfielder Ulyqbek Asanbayev, while Marat Khairullin is also nursing an injury.

Veteran playmaker Andrei Lavrik has shed four kilograms and appears to be extremely fit for a 34-year-old, but Mukhanov must be concerned that his defense is notably slower than Haifa's front line.