Following a very short summer break, Israeli champions Hapoel Be’er Sheva have picked up right where they left off in June, with a torrid run through Champions League qualifying that reached white-hot status last night after a 1:0 defeat of Greek powerhouse Olympiacos FC in the third round of group stage qualification.
Following a 0:0 draw in Greece last week in the first leg of the fixture, Hapoel returned to Turner Stadium with hopes of upending the Champions League regulars from Piraeus, veterans of 17 appearances in the past 19 seasons.
A tense game broke out, with Olympiacos and Hapoel parrying back and forth well into the second half in the northern Negev without either team scoring. But in the 79th minute, Hapoel center back Shir Tzedek found space just inside the 18 and fired a superlative left-footed strike past Olympiacos keeper Stefanos Kapino and into the bottom right corner of the net, sending the 16,000 red-clad Beer Sheva fans into a frenzy. (See the goal at 1:50.)
For the final 10 minutes Olympiacos furiously pressed for an away goal that would send them to the playoff round, but as their tempo increased, so did their aggression, and the visitors collected three yellow cards (to add to the two they received earlier) in their fruitless search for a score. As the final whistle sounded, the guests from Piraeus left the field, dejected, to head back to Greece as the latest team to suffer defeat at the hands feet of the Israeli champions.
The draw for the final playoff round of group stage qualification will take place in Nyon on Friday, with Hapoel having five potential opponents: APOEL (Cyprus), Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic), Celtic FC (Scotland), FC Salzburg (Austria), or Legia Warszawa (Poland). Hapoel will be a serious underdog against any of them, but don’t despair, sports fans- In previous years both Plzen (last year to Maccabi Tel Aviv) and Salzburg (a few years back to Hapoel Tel Aviv) fell to Israeli opposition in Champions League qualifying.
With a victory in the playoff, Hapoel would become the 6th Israeli team to make the group stage of the preeminent club competition in world football. And while they would be quick to claim a moral victory for making it that far, hopefully they would garner better results than the previous Israeli clubs to make it to group play. Last season, Maccabi Tel Aviv lost all 6 of its group stage games and was outscored 16-1, and a few years prior to that, in 2009-10, Maccabi Haifa became the first team ever to score zero goals and lose all 6 games in the group stages. Hapoel will be looking to channel a little of the 2010-11 Hapoel Tel Aviv juju, as that club fought to a respectable 1 win, 2 draws, and 3 losses through their six group games.
But curb that enthusiasm for a few weeks and let’s see what happens in the playoff fixtures that will take place on August 16 and 17, with return legs on August 23 or 24.
With a little luck Champions League football will be back on Israeli soil come September.