By Luke Williams
It has been a rollercoaster 12 months for Israeli football. In October last year, the national side were denied the chance to play off for a place in the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals by a last-gasp Andreas Herzog strike for Austria. Out of that despair sprung hope as Hapoel Tel-Aviv performed heroics to reach the UEFA Cup quarter-finals.
Maccabi Haifa, Ligat ha-Al champions for the past two seasons, had an up-and-down season of their own. After being ejected from the UEFA Champions League just as they were preparing to face Liverpool FC in the third qualifying round for fielding an ineligible player against FC Haka, they bounced back from that disappointment to win the championship but were then denied the double after losing the cup final to Maccabi Tel-Aviv on penalties.
All these on-the-pitch dramas have been played out against a backdrop of betting scandals and television disputes within Israeli football, as well as the ongoing political ferment in the troubled Middle Eastern state. Tonight though Haifa have the chance to follow Hapoel's lead last year, relegate negative thoughts to the sidelines and make history of their own by becoming the first Israeli side to reach the group stages of the Champions League.
Haifa hold a 2-0 lead from the first leg of their tie against Austrian side SK Sturm Graz, thanks to two goals from Nigeria forward Yakubu Ayegbeni. If the Israeli champions do reach the first group stage, the feat will be all the more impressive for the fact that they have not had the benefit of playing their home games in their own country, after UEFA ruled not to hold any European games in Israel due to security concerns.
The portents for Yitzhak Schum’s side are mixed. Haifa's previous finest hour in European competition, reaching the quarter-finals of the 1998/99 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, also came at the expense of Austrian opposition after a second-round victory against SV Ried.
Additionally, opponents Sturm are somewhat in disarray at present after three consecutive losses. Club president Hannes Kartnig has even gone as far as blaming coach Ivica Osim for the side's recent poor performances, although he has stressed that the Bosnia-Herzegovnian's job is not in immediate danger. "On Wednesday I want to see no sleepwalkers, but real football. If I don't see good results, some players will have to leave," Kartnig said, before warning Osim that he "cannot go on defending all the players".
However, Sturm have denied Haifa in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League before, back in 1994, which gives the Austrians a slight psychological edge, although Israeli football has improved apace since then - indeed Haifa had only been a professional club for two years when the sides previously met.
On the injury front, Jerzy Brzeczek is doubtful for Sturm with a muscle injury, although coach Osim has Charles Amoah and Eddy Bosnar ready for selection again. Haifa meanwhile have a clean bill of health, aside from Rafi Cohen, scorer of two goals against FC Belshina Bobruisk in the second qualifying round, who is a doubt with an ankle problem.
Schum must also choose between Walid Badir and Guillermo Israilevich in central midfield. However when asked if he was feeling any pressure, Schum joked: "I'm sleeping like a baby - one hour asleep, then one hour awake!” Haifa fans will be hoping their coach is still smiling come the end of the night.
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