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The rapid rise of Hapoel's Romain Rocchi

Romain Rocchi, who has gone from playing in France's Ligue 2 to making his UEFA Champions League bow for Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC, is looking forward to facing compatriots Olympique Lyonnais.

Romain Rocchi (right) in action at Benfica
Romain Rocchi (right) in action at Benfica ©Getty Images

Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC are breaking new ground this season, making their debut in the UEFA Champions League as only the third Israeli club to participate in the competition, but one of their number is taking an even bigger leap into the unknown.

Midfielder Romain Rocchi was turning out in the French second division for FC Metz less than six months ago, yet made his UEFA Champions League bow in the 2-0 loss against SL Benfica in Lisbon on Matchday 1.

After starting out at AS Cannes, Rocchi joined Paris Saint-Germain FC and won the French Cup in 2004. Two seasons years later, though, he suffered relegation with AC Ajaccio and had been playing in Ligue 2, first with the Corsican team, then with Metz, until Hapoel signed him in the summer.

"For me it's great to be playing in this, the best competition in which you can play," Rocchi, who appeared in all six of Hapoel's qualifying and play-off games, told UEFA.com. "I went from the second division to the Champions League, so I have to work hard so I can adapt to this level."

Rocchi, who turns 29 on 2 October, said Eli Gutman's side were aware of the challenge awaiting them, with Wednesday's visitors Olympique Lyonnais and FC Schalke 04 also in Group B. "We're always learning in these high-level matches," he said. "For a lot of our players it's the first time they've played in the Champions League."

The central player, who said he consulted former France midfielder and current Israel coach Luis Fernandez before moving to Hapoel, believes his club's underdog status could work in their favour. "We're a small team with nothing to lose, so everything's a bonus," said Rocchi. "If we work hard, we can hope to take a few points away from home but the most important thing is to impose ourselves at home."

Hapoel will have a chance to do that on Matchday 2 in a direct confrontation with his countrymen. "I have played against Lyon before but [the return fixture] will be a great opportunity to go back to France to see friends and family," Rocchi said. "As well as that, they're one of the biggest teams in France so a match like this is always exciting to play in. Playing in the Champions League means playing with the best, so it's a great pleasure."