Soccer / Maccabi Haifa Looking Forward to UEFA Draw

Big-time opponent possible in Champions League qualifying.

If Maccabi Haifa manages to read its fax messages from UEFA correctly this time, it may finally face a big-time opponent from the third round of the Champions League this season.

Last season' big fiasco was a misunderstanding that led to the club missing out on a prestigious meeting with Liverpool and then a berth in the Champions League. This time, if all is well and the Premier League champions manage to overcome Belshina Bobruisk of Belarus in the second round, any number of great rivals beckon in the third round, including such giants as Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Newcastle United or Feyenoord, to name but a few (see red list below for possible opposition).

Unfortunately for Haifa this time around, it appears very unlikely that the arguments of last season over where the club would host Liverpool (Kiryat Eliezer or Ramat Gan) will apply. As UEFA has made Israel off limits to clubs in the coming round, Bobruisk will play in Nicosia. It appears that not even an unlikely reversal in the security situation would lead UEFA to change its decision at such short notice and prestigious clubs with valuable assets (players, that is) are not likely to risk a trip to Israel. It is likely Nicosia's GSP stadium will host Haifa's home third qualifying round match too.

The draw will take place at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland at lunch time today and in view of the quality opposition, Yaakov Shahar's dream of leading an Israeli club into the Champions League proper (and making a few shekels profit in the process) will probably have to wait a while longer.

There are still 46 clubs left in the draw at the moment, but once the second qualifying round has been completed, that number will be cut to 32. Haifa faces a very realistic prospect of starting to think of the UEFA Cup as an alternative for next season. The chances of beating any of Europe's glamour sides is very remote indeed.

There is still a remote chance that Haifa could be drawn against a side that could upset one of the seeded teams in the second round, and in such a situation anything is possible.