Ramat Gan Stadium will be the center of the football universe this week. Sort of.
Maccabi Haifa stands on the cusp of Champions League qualification as it enters a home-and-home fixture against Belgian champions KRC Genk this week and next. On Wednesday evening, the Israeli national champions and perennial title contenders will entertain Genk at Ramat Gan with the hopes of advancing to the group stage of the competition for the third time in club history.
More than just pride is on the line- a berth in the elite competition guarantees three home games against top-flight European opponents and opens up the possibility for lucrative financial rewards.
Israeli clubs have a less than stellar record in the group stage- not once has one advanced beyond the opening round of six games. Last year, however, HaPoel Tel Aviv secured a historic home win against Portugese side Benfica and famously drew 2:2 at Lyon, which helped bury Maccabi’s disastrous 2004-5 campaign, in which they scored zero goals in six games, in the dim recesses of our memories. Still, the 3:0 victory of Maccabi against Manchester United in the 2002-3 group stage remains perhaps the most storied victory of an Israeli side in Europe (although HaPoel Tel Aviv’s ousting of Chelsea in the Fall of 2001 is a close second).
And here’s more good news- set your DVRs to Fox Soccer this Thursday at 4:00 to see the green-and-white in action. But there is a catch: the game is actually being played on Wednesday, so no peeking at the twitter feeds or the highlights until then. With a little guile and some inspired play, Maccabi will head to Genk next week needing only a tie to advance. (You can catch next week’s game on Wednesday the 24th at 9:00 am).
So for all of you who bleed green and white, here’s a rare chance to see Vladimir Dvalishvili, Maccabi’s Georgian goal-scoring machine, or Nir Davidovich, the long-time keeper with the famous pink goalie jersey (I bought one for my wife last time I was in Haifa), or former West Ham benchwarmer Yaniv Katan (whose jersey I have) on your television screen.
As they say in Kiryat Eliezer, Yarok, Ole, Yarok Ole Ole!
Also worthy of mention are Maccabi Tel Aviv, who play host to Greek club Panathinaikos, and HaPoel Tel Aviv, who travel to Lithuania to play Ekranas, as they both seek to make the group stage of the Europa League competition. Both games are Thursday.