Aiming to keep their hopes of a first-ever Champions League group-stage appearance alive, Slovan Bratislava host Maccabi Haifa in the first leg of their third-round qualifying tie at Tehelne pole on Wednesday evening.
The Slovakian champions edged past Zrinjski Mostar 3-2 on aggregate to make it this far, while Maccabi overturned a first-leg deficit against Sheriff Tiraspol to run out 5-2 aggregate winners.
Home has not been where the heart is for Slovan Bratislava in Champions League qualifying so far, as the Fortuna Liga holders were held to a 1-1 draw by Luxembourg’s Swift Hesperange in the first qualifying round before a Vladimir Weiss brace in the second leg did the damage.
It was a similar story for Bratislava in their second-round showdown with Zrinjski of Bosnia & Herzegovina, as Vladimir Weiss’s side came up trumps 1-0 away from home and were ostensibly on course for a straightforward home win in the return leg, boasting a 2-0 lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
However, two quickfire strikes from Zrinsjki made Bratislava’s evening far more uncomfortable than it should have been, but the Sky Blues survived a nail-biting final few moments to advance to the third round of qualifying for the first time in nine years.
Since getting as far as the playoff round in the 2014-15 campaign – losing to BATE Borisov that year – Bratislava have only got as far as the second qualifying round of Europe’s elite tournament, although they did break new ground with a Europa Conference League last-16 appearance last term, suffering penalty heartache at the hands of Basel.
Weiss’s men have commenced the defence of their Fortuna Liga title in unspectacular fashion, taking two points from their opening two matches against FC Kosice and MFK Dukla Banska Bystrica, but a six-game unbeaten run still stands them in good stead ahead of the visit of Maccabi.
In contrast, the visitors to Tehelne pole are yet to kick off their bid for domestic glory, but they have already added another trophy to their cabinet this summer, besting Beitar Jerusalem 3-1 in July’s Super Cup encounter.
The reigning Israeli champions made light work of Maltese outfit Hamrun Spartans in the first round of Champions League qualifying – running out 6-1 aggregate winners – but they had it all to do in the second leg of their subsequent meeting with Sheriff Tiraspol, who edged the first meeting 1-0 in Moldova.
Sheriff would establish a 2-1 aggregate lead thanks to an Amine Talal penalty, but Tjaronn Chery and Mahmoud Jaber’s long-range efforts forced extra time, where Messay Dego’s men kept their best shooting boots in pristine condition to net twice more through Dean David and Erik Shuranov.
As 4-1 victories go, Maccabi’s was certainly one of the more hard-fought ones, but their reward could yet be another appearance in the Champions League proper, having finished bottom of the group of death with Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Juventus last season, albeit not without claiming a famous win over the Old Lady.
Not since the 2006-07 campaign have Maccabi Haifa been dumped out in the third qualifying round – Liverpool were their conquerors that year – but the Israeli champions have never before tested their mettle against a hopeful Bratislava outfit.
Slovan Bratislava Champions League form:
Slovan Bratislava form (all competitions):
Maccabi Haifa Champions League form:
Maccabi Haifa form (all competitions):
We say: Slovan Bratislava 0-1 Maccabi Haifa
While football is a team game, Weiss is arguably an irreplaceable figure in the Bratislava attack, and more shortcomings at home should be exploited by their Israeli counterparts.
Maccabi did not always cover themselves in glory during their second-round tie with Sheriff, but Dego’s side should take a first-leg advantage back to their headquarters this week.