Soccer / Maccabi Haifa Taking Nothing for Granted vs. Aktobe

Maccabi Haifa looks to take a another step toward the money-spinning group stage of the Champions League tonight, when it faces FC Aktobe of Kazakhstan in the first leg of the competition's third qualifying round.

Haifa last qualified for the group stage of this competition in 2002, when it beat Austrian side Sturm Graz, but the format of the world's most prestigious competition has changed since then. Rather than the victorious teams from the third qualifying round automatically earning a place in the group stage, this time the 10 victorious sides will be forced to face an additional play-off match for the right to take on the big guns in the group stage.

Haifa's form in the competition has been flawless so far: two games, two victories, 10 goals scored and no goals conceded. But manager Elisha Levy knows that the part-timers of Glentoran, who were so easily brushed aside in the previous round, are no indication of the level of the teams that lie ahead.

Ahead of tonight's game, the Israeli and Kazakh coaches held a joint press conference yesterday - with Haifa's assistant coach, former Georgian international Georgi Derasilia, providing simultaneous translations.

Levy was asked by the local media whether he was surprised by the intense security operation ahead of Haifa's arrival.

"When we landed, I was shocked at the amount of media attention and by the security," he said. "It took a little getting used to, but by now we hardly notice it."

Levy added, "Aktobe is an excellent team and we will certainly not be taking anything for granted. We are also aware that we will be playing in front of 13,000 fans who will be cheering their team. But that's all part of the advantage enjoyed by the home team, and the boot will be on the other foot next week when we play in Haifa."

For the Kazakh champions, meanwhile, tonight's clash against Maccabi Haifa has become something of a national mission. Last night, Eleusin Sagyndykovthe, governor of the province in which Aktobe is located, summoned the entire team - including players and coaching staff - for a pep talk ahead of the game.

"We know that Haifa is a much better team than the Icelanders," Sagyndykovthe told team members yesterday, "but you have to shine with the eyes of the entire nation upon you. Everyone will be watching you - men, women and children - and keeping their fingers crossed for you."

Aktobe manager Vladimir Mukhanov intends to stick to the 4-4-2 formation that he used in the 6-0 aggregate victory over FH Hafnarfjordur in the second qualifying leg. He may, however, opt to switch between two of the team's forwards, moving Marat Khairullin from his usual position in left midfield in place of Murat Tleshev, who was the team's top scorer last season.

At his final press conference yesterday, Mukhanov admitted, "Haifa is a better team than us in every department. If we are to have any hope of beating them and progressing to the group stage, we will have to take advantage of the fact that we are in the middle of our season and Hafia hasn't started playing yet."

Europa, Europa

Also in action today is Bnei Yehuda, which hosts Pacos de Ferreira of Portugal in the third qualifying round of the new Europa Cup.

Bnei Yehuda saw off opposition from Azerbaijan and Latvia in the first two rounds - also without conceding a goal - but tonight's opposition will provide a very different challenge for Guy Luzon and his charges.

Nonetheless, Luzon struck an optimistic tone at yesterday's press conference, telling reporters that he hopes for many more European clashes in the upcoming season.

"We know everything there is to know about our opponents," he said yesterday, "and even if the Portuguese league is better than the Israeli league, we're confident that we can progress."