FC Salzburg have failed to clear the final hurdle before the group stage three times in the last four seasons and are determined to finally achieve their goal against Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC.
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Having fallen at the final hurdle before the UEFA Champions League group stage three times in the last four years, FC Salzburg are extra determined to break through this year but standing in their way are a Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC team who have their own reasons for optimism.
Salzburg lost out to another Israeli club, Maccabi Haifa FC, at this stage a year ago, paying the price for a 2-1 home defeat in the first leg, although coach Huub Stevens does not expect the memory of that defeat to have any bearing this time round. "Hapoel are stronger than Maccabi were, but we are better than last year as well," he said. Defender Christian Schwegler echoed that view, adding: "We want to change the negative experience from last year into a positive one this year. The team has grown together well in the past few weeks."
Stevens is without long-term absentees Edward Gustafsson, Andreas Ulmer, Simon Cziommer and Robin Nelisse for the home opener while summer signing David Mendes da Silva is suspended after collecting bookings in each leg of the third qualifying round win against AC Omonia. Brazilian striker Alan could make his European bow, however, while his coach underlined Salzburg's desire to finally earn a group-stage debut. "We have to do everything to get into the UEFA Champions League," he said. "These two games will be a real indicator of our strength. This will be a very tight affair. The tie is 50-50, maybe 51-49 in our favour."
Hapoel have lost striker Mahran Lala to a serious knee injury picked up in Sunday's cup tie against Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC and coach Eli Gutman acknowledges his charges will be up against it. "Salzburg have improved since last year and we are expecting two very difficult games," he said, although his side have tasted success on Austrian soil, winning 3-0 at SK Rapid Wien in last season's UEFA Europa League group stage and also defeating the same opponents 5-1 in Israel.
The coach has been meticulous in his preparation as he plots a repeat performance, Gutman adding: "Everything will depend on tactics: what we have prepared with the coaching staff and how the players implement it on the pitch. Salzburg are a good team who combine individual abilities with a team structure. They have strong players and an excellent coach so we have to be tactically disciplined. This is a critical match for us. We know exactly who we're dealing with. We have the capabilities to compete against them but we must keep an eye on their players."