Maccabi Haifa to face PSG’s Messi, Neymar in Champion’s League group stage

The Israeli Maccabi Haifa soccer team on Thursday was placed in group H of the Champion’s League group stage, where it will face off against French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, as well as Italian club Juventus and Portuguese side Benfica.

France’s defending champion, PSG features some of the world’s top players, including Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

PSG lost in the Champions League final two years ago, but betting sites list it as one of the favorites this year.

Haifa’s other matchups won’t be much easier: Juventus and Benfica are both two-time champions, and perennially at the top of the tables in their respective home leagues.

Maccabi clinched its spot in the group stage Tuesday on a 90th-minute own-goal by Belgrade Red Star, giving the team a 5-4 victory on aggregate.

The team was mobbed by ecstatic supporters upon returning to Israel the next day, with hundreds of the club’s fans waiting to greet the players upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport.

Each team plays the others in its group at home and away. The top two teams in each group then advance to the knockout rounds. No Israeli team has ever made it past the group stage.

It is just the third time Maccabi Haifa has made it this far in the UEFA Champions League, European soccer’s premier annual tournament. In its last appearance, in 2009-2010, it made unhappy history by failing to score a single goal in all six matches.

Two of those games were against Juventus, which beat it 1-0 both times. Five years earlier, Maccabi Tel Aviv battled Juventus to a 1-1 tie in Ramat Gan when the two were also placed in the same Champions League group.

Maccabi’s team celebrates after beating Red Star at Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)

Haifa also won’t be facing PSG for the first time. Maccabi actually beat the French squad 3-2 on aggregate in the 1998-1999 UEFA Cup, a lower level competition.

PSG’s last game in Israel, however, was just last month, when it beat Nantes in Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium to take the French Super Cup. A year earlier, it lost to Lille in the same venue.

PSG’s Lionel Messi, left, kicks the ball during the French Super Cup final soccer match between Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

UEFA will announce a fixture schedule by Saturday. The Champions League group stage starts early this season on September 6, and ends five weeks sooner than usual on November 2, because of the World Cup in Qatar, which starts November 20.

Fixture congestion caused by the first World Cup played in the European winter means the Champions League final in Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium is on June 10.

Among the 32 teams included in the tournament, Maccabi Haifa is ranked lowest, according to UEFA ranking based on European results in the past five seasons.

The 32 teams will share about 2 billion euros ($1.99 billion) in UEFA prize money.

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