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August 25, 2022 3:47 pm
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Soccer Legend Messi Heading to Israel as Maccabi Haifa Face Off Against Top European Sides in UEFA Champions League

avatar by Algemeiner Staff

Maccabi Haifa’s supporters are seen at the stadium of Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, where their team won a 5-4 aggregate victory to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Photo: Reuters/Aleksandar Djorovic

Israel’s national soccer champions face a tough contest in the UEFA Champions League group stage announced on Thursday, drawing teams that include some of the sport’s leading lights, including Lionel Messi, Nicolas Otamendi and Adrien Rabiot.

Maccabi Haifa qualified for the group stage of Europe’s most prestigious competition following a thrilling qualifying tie against Red Star Belgrade that ended in a 5-4 aggregate victory for the Israeli side. The team will now face off against the likes of Paris Saint-German, Juventus and Benfica.

This year marks the third time in Maccabi Haifa’s history that the team has qualified for the Champions League. On the last occasion, during the 2009-10 season, the side set a record that it will be keen to overcome on this outing, losing all six games, scoring no goals and conceding eight. In that group, they also faced Juventus as well as Bordeaux and Bayern Munich.

Drawn from around the world, Maccabi Haifa’s squad includes Haitian forward Frantzdy Pierrot, who previously played in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US, American goalkeeper Josh Cohen and Nigerian midfielder Ali Mohamed. The team’s roster also includes some of Israel’s leading soccer stars, including captain Neta Lavi and veteran striker Ben Sahar.

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The Israelis will face an uphill struggle when it comes to qualifying for the knockout stage of the competition. Opponents Paris Saint-German can call on players of the quality of Messi — currently eyeing a Champions League all-time goalscoring record — as well as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, while Italian powerhouse Juventus can field midfielders like Rabiot and Juan Cuadrado. Portugal’s Benfica meanwhile trounced opposition teams on their way to this year’s competition, including a 5-0 aggregate victory over Ukraine’s Dinamo Kyiv.

Haifa players reacted excitedly to the news of the draw, with winger Omer Atzili posting a request on Instagram to swap shirts with the iconic Messi. During an action-packed season that also includes the World Cup in Qatar later this year, group stage matches will be played between Sept. 6 and Nov. 2, with the final scheduled for June 10 2023 at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul.

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