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By Patrick Hart
Maccabi Haifa have it all to do when they take on Olympiakos Piraeus FC in Cyprus in their opening Group F 'home' fixture tomorrow night.
The hard way
If the Israeli champions are to advance in the competition, they will do so the hard way. Goals from Yaniv Katan and Rafi Cohen could not prevent them sliding to a 5-2 first-night defeat at Manchester United FC last Wednesday. And now they face an Olympiakos side who have registered ten goals in the last two games.
Olympiakos goal spree
The Greek champions followed their 6-2 win against Bayer 04 Leverkusen with a 4-0 victory against Akratitos FC that took them top of the Alpha Ethniki. Fair to say the sporting gods were not smiling on Itzhak Shum and company when the first-round draw was made.
To make matters worse, Haifa go into the game at the GSP stadium in Nicosia with question marks against the fitness of Israeli internationals Alon Harazi and Walid Badier.
The news is not all bad though. Lithuanian midfielder Raimondas Zutautas and Nigerian forward Yakubu Aiyegbeni return from injury and suspension, and coach Shum remains upbeat. Maccabi had 45 per cent of the play at Old Trafford, which, he insists, can inspire them to better things against Olympiakos and Leverkusen. "We were without of two of our best players [against United] but they will play in the next game," Shum said. "I believe we have a chance and we will try to take points off the other teams."
Mindful of the local interest in Olympiakos, Shum has asked fans to wear the club's green colours at the GSP stadium in Nicosia to help the team feel at home. Olympiakos will also need all the support they can get for this first-ever Champions League match in Cyprus. They have never won an away game in the competition, losing 13 of 16 ties outside Piraeus. The expected 10,000 visiting supporters will not go amiss.
Minds on the job
Confidence might be high, but coach Takis Lemonis is taking nothing for granted. "We really enjoyed the Leverkusen game, but must not get carried away," he said. "If anything, our concentration has to be better. You cannot underestimate Maccabi simply because their players are not such big names."
Lemonis, who rested Giorgios Anatolakis, Paraskevas Antzas, Dimitrios Eleftheropoulos and Christian Karembeu at the weekend, has taken a 22-man squad to Nicosia. Lambros Choutos joined the party even though he is ruled out through injury.
Focus on Haifa
The Akratitos match was Olympiakos's last domestic engagement for a month - making the Champions League their sole concern. Swedish midfield player Pär Zetterberg, a scorer on Saturday, said: "We are not the strongest team in the world so we have to give our all in every game." Haifa have been warned.
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