Maccabi Tel Aviv's next opponents in round three of the Champions League qualifiers are Swiss champions FC Basel. Basel head coach Murat Yakin: "Maccabi are a real challenge"
In the past four seasons, perhaps inspired by their European neighbours Germany, Holland and Italy, Swiss champions FC Basel have become a rising power in European football. The club's utter dominance of the Swiss first division has begun to translate into real accomplishments on the European stage, culminating last season in their semi-final departure from last season's Europa league competition at the hands of ultimate winners Chelsea. For purposes of comparison, a decade ago they were ranked 92 by UEFA, lower than clubs like the English side Ipswich Town, the Spanish side Rayo Vallecano or even Hapoel Tel Aviv. They start this season ranked 35, above such imperious European powers as Scottish Celtic and the Italian sides Napoli and Roma. Even above Hapoel Tel Aviv.
FC Basel never disappeared from the European landscape, but changes to the system of qualifying for the Champions League have provided them with a unique advantage in recent years. Often referred to by their nickname, the "Bebbis", Basel benefitted from facing easy opponents in the qualifying stages in the 2008/09 and 2010/11 seasons, and in 2011/12 they gained automatic entry to the group stages due to Switserland's excellent ranking in Europe. Last season they suffered a painful blow when they were knocked out in the play-off stage after two losses to Romanian champions CFR Cluj, but compensated with a splendid campaign in the less prestigious Europa League competition. On the way to their historic encounter with Chelsea in the semi-finals, Basel left a trail of victims that included the Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, the Ukranian club FC Dnipro, Russian outfit Zenith St. Petersburg and even the English Tottenham Hotspurs, who lost to Basel in a penalty shoot-out after two 2-2 draws.
After last year's early departure from the Champions League, FC Basel are keen to avoid any glitch that will keep them out of the group stages. In their entry round, fate has pitched them up against Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv, who also have their hearts set on joining the "big boys" in Europe's (some say the world's) most prestigious competition. "This is the toughest draw we could possibly have got', said Basel captain and striker Marco Streller, "We're anticipating a very long journey to Israel". Head coach Murat Yakin has already been to Israel in this context, when in the 1995/96 season he came as a player for then Swiss champions Grasshoppers to face the very same Maccabi Tel Aviv in the then only qualifying round. He even scored in the first leg 1-1 draw before Grasshoppers beat Maccabi 0-1 at Bloomfield Stadium to win their place in the group stages. "I can't say much about Maccabi', he admitted after the draw, "I only know that when I faced them as a Grasshoppers player they were worthy opponents".
The first leg will take place next Tuesday in the Swiss city of Basle at the "St. Jakob-Park" Stadium, with a capacity of 37,500 for international contests. The stadium underwent an upgrade in the "noughties" and was the venue for the group stages of the European championships in 2008 which were held in Switzerland and Austria. FC Basel have a very devoted fan corps that fill the stadium for most of the home league matches and if the past is anything to go by we can expect to see some of them at least here in Israel for the second leg at Bloomfield Stadium a week after the encounter in Switzerland. The winner on aggregate of the two matches will advance to the play-off stage of the Champions League while the loser will reach the same stage of the Europa League, the less prestigious of the two European competitions.