Cluj will be hoping that home comforts do the job for them again in this Champions League qualifier against Maccabi Tel Aviv; Dan Petrescu’s Railwaymen, the champions of Romania, had to mount a second-leg comeback at Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu after losing 1-0 away to Astana in the last round of qualifying. Whereas this is Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first qualifier this year, with the different rules on qualifying and Israeli coefficient being stronger than that of the Romanian league.
Cluj are hoping to make it one step closer to the Champions League proper for the first time in seven years; last time they made it, they recorded a famous 1-0 win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the group stage, but have been disappointed ever since, losing a qualifier against Malmo last summer. One plus for Cluj is that they’ll be more in the swing of the season, and are now two games into the league campaign. After a disappointing 1-1 draw with Politehnica Iași in the opener, it was back to normal service at the weekend with a 4-1 thrashing of Academica Clinceni.
The visitors, meanwhile, will hope to have shaken off any holiday rustiness in the pre-season friendly, as they only returned to competitive football on the weekend with the Israeli super cup fixture, which they won 1-0 over Bnei Yehuda. They romped the league last season with a massive 22-point lead over runners-up Maccabi Haifa, with 50% more points than the next-best. An invincible campaign, with 20 wins and six draws, Maccabi Tel Aviv will be hoping to take that steeliness into the new season.
Petrescu will have been satisfied with his team’s excellent performance in the second-leg comeback against Astana and will likely lean on the same players that featured in that Saturday’s emphatic 4-1 win. That means Mario Rondon leading the line alongside Billel Omrani, who scored all three goals against Astana. Catalin Itu, who scored and assisted on the weekend, is likely to feature once again in midfield.
Eliran Atar finished as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s top scorer last season with twelve goals, but he was only introduced at the hour mark during Saturday’s Israeli curtain-raiser, which suggests he might have been rested in preparation for this crucial fixture. The veteran striker’s return to Maccabi Tel Aviv, after a failed stint in France with Rennes, has proven successful. Aaron Schoenfeld scored the winner on Saturday and could be rewarded with another start here.
Cluj have put in a couple of extremely impressive performances of late and looked a formidable side on home soil, while it’s difficult to judge a Maccabi Tel Aviv a few weeks behind them in terms of this season’s schedule. As such, Cluj are deservedly favourites and worth backing at 19/20 with Bet365, while their goalscoring exploits of late make a high-scoring affair of more than 2.5 goals at 5/4 something to consider. Each of Cluj’s last three games have seen goals at both ends, so both teams to score at 1/1 is a fair price.