Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa will get their Europa League campaigns underway this week, with both hopeful of advancing through their groups, having avoided many of the big guns in the competition.
Israel champions Tel Aviv failed to reach the group stages of the Champions League, but they will be looking to replicate their form of last season when they stormed to their first title in 10 years, winning the Championship by 13 points.
The Yellows were prolific on the domestic front scoring 78 goals in 36 games, although 22 of these were scored by Eliran Atar who has now moved on, signing for French side Stade de Reims. They will also be without the manager who guided them to last season’s success, with Oscar Garcia replacing Gus Poyet as manager of Brighton. However, in Paulo Sousa they have a manager who will look to continue in a very similar manner to Garcia, getting the ball down on the floor and playing an attractive attacking game.
Tel Aviv can perhaps consider themselves a little unlucky to only be in the Europa League this season, having come close to being in the main draw for the Champions League. They were beaten 4-3, over two legs, by a Basel side who were semi-finalists in last year’s Europa League, something which will encourage them heading into the competition.
They will also be encouraged by their draw. While it is a very tight group with little separating any of the teams in Group F, there is no standout team, and the Israeli outfit will feel they are capable of matching the sides, having enjoyed a domestic campaign better than two of the three, and equally as impressive as the other.
French side Bordeaux finished seventh in Ligue 1, qualifying for the Europa League through their success in winning the Coupe de France, while Frankfurt despite enjoying their highest finish in 19 years, still only finished 6th. Apoel Nicosia are the other champions in the group, having won the Cypriot First Division, but they were disappointing in their Champions League qualifier against Maribor, drawing 1-1 on aggregate, and losing on away goals.
Therefore while there are competitive outfits in Tel Aviv’s draw, there is no team standing head and shoulders above the rest, meaning it will be a closely fought group. Sousa's side will certainly hope to perform better on this stage than they did last time round, having finished bottom of their group and without a win in the 2011-2012 competition.
Israeli Premier League runners-up Maccabi Haifa will also be hoping to progress deep into the competition, and have arguably been afforded an easier group than their league counterparts.
Little is known about Kazakhstan side Shaktar Karagandy, who represent their country as league winners, but they did come close to qualifying for the Champions League, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Celtic. AZ Alkmaar will be more of a household name for many fans of European football. The Dutch side qualified for the competition by virtue of winning the KNVB Cup, and have a good record in the Europa League, having reached the quarter finals in 2007 and 2012, and the semi finals in 2005. Nevertheless they are inconsistent and finished in a disappointing 10th place in the Dutch Eredivisie, something which will give Haifa confidence. The Greens’ final opponents in the group stages will be Greek team Paok Salonika who like Haifa, were runners up in their domestic league.
Arik Benado’s men will be buoyed by a fine qualifying campaign for the main draw, having found the net 16 times in three two legged ties, and perhaps more impressively, having only conceded once. They ruthlessly dispatched of Azerbaijan’s Khazar Lankaran 10-0 on aggregate, a tie which included a record breaking 8-0 away victory, before beating Latvia’s Ventspils 3-0. Qualification for the main draw was ensured with a 3-1 aggregate win over Romania’s Astra Giurgiu, wrapping up a very impressive qualifying campaign.
Like Tel Aviv though they do not have the greatest record in the competition’s main stages. Their most recent performance came in the 2011-2012 season, in which they came third in their group, missing out on the next round by two points in what was a much tougher group on paper than they face this time round.
Thus there are visibly encouraging signs for both of the Israeli representatives in this year’s Europa League. The draws are by no means straightforward (especially in the case of Tel Aviv), but at the same time they should certainly not put too much fear into either team.
Home backing will be key, with it being massively important that the fans of Tel Aviv and Haifa generate an atmosphere that makes it difficult for any opposition to play their natural game. If such backing is given, and the teams perform well, it is very plausible that come the end of December, and the end of the group stage, both Israeli representatives will be looking forward to further European engagements.
Written by David Morris