Soccer is ramping up all over the world this month as the European leagues kick into gear and the continental cup competitions finalize their participating clubs. This is great news for soccer fans as weekends are chock-full-o’ matches from the Premier League, Bundesliga, and MLS, to say the least. The Israeli domestic league begins on August 21, with cup competitions already underway, but here are three other stories that should interest Israeli soccer fans as we count down to opening weekend.
Israelis In The Champions League Playoffs
The remaining 10 spots in the Champions League group stages are up for grabs later this month as the final playoff round begins next week. Readers of this blog are no doubt aware that Maccabi Tel Aviv earned their spot in the playoff last week after defeating Viktoria Plzen, and last Friday they drew FC Basel in their final playoff fixture. The teams meet August 19 in Basel and August 25 in Tel Aviv.
Beyond Maccabi, though, three other Israeli players will be taking the pitch in Champions League playoff action this month.
Defender Nir Bitton and his Celtic FC teammates drew Swedish champions Malmo in the final round. Bitton has been a mainstay on the Celtic back line as a defender, with 45 appearances since his July 2013 transfer from FC Ashdod. Given the surge of anti-Semitism in Malmo in recent years, I’m seriously hoping that Bitton makes a strong showing and Celtic return to Scotland with qualification in hand. The teams meet on August 19 at Celtic Park and August 25 in Malmo.
CSKA Moscow and Israeli midfielder Bibras Nathko will take on Sporting Club of Lisbon in a rematch of the 2005 UEFA Cup (now Europa League) Final. The first leg will take place on August 18 in Lisbon, with the return leg on August 26 in Russia. Nathko’s 2014-15 season in Russia was a great success, as he netted 14 goals in 31 games (including a goal and two assists in Champions League play) and led the team in scoring.
Finally, Club Brugge and Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov will be looking to topple the giants themselves, Manchester United, in their playoff fixture. Refaelov has scored 43 goals for Brugge since 2011, but his recent foot injury may keep him off the field for this matchup. The clubs meet August 19 at Old Trafford in Manchester and August 26 in Brugge.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict that CSKA and Celtic will go through and qualify for the group stages, but will be hoping for a gargantuan upset from Brugge as they tackle the Red Devils at Old Trafford. It’s not looking that likely, though, for Brugge- they haven’t beaten an English club since the 1994-95 season in the previous iteration of the Champions League.
Brighton & Hove Albion: Israel West
Not one, but two Israelis will be taking the field for League Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion this season. Midfielder Beram Kayal came over on a transfer from Celtic last spring, and countryman and striker Tomer Hemed, who never quite recovered from his injury and missed time at Mallorca, moved to the club over the summer. The League Championship is the second-best league in England, with the top teams winning promotion to the Premier League at the end of each season. Last season, Brighton & Hove finished 20th out of the 24 teams in the Championship, narrowly avoiding relegation, so the club will be looking for their infusion of Israeli talent to help the Seagulls move up the table.
Brighton & Hove opened their campaign with a 1:0 victory over Nottingham Forest, and both Kayal and Hemed featured for the club. Hemed took four shots, three of which were on goal, and Kayal also took three shots, while also earning a yellow card for a dangerous second half challenge.
FC Ashdod Seeing Red: A Dangerous Night in Bulgaria
In the bad news department, on August 3 FC Ashdod’s seemingly innocuous preseason friendly in Bulgaria turned into a small riot as CSKA Sofia fans rushed the field towards the end of game. Furious with Ashdod’s aggressive tactics, and following a third red card issued to the visitors, fans from the “Sector G” section of the stadium, notorious for being occasionally violent and fanatic, began to throw bottles and trash on the field, and then literally chased the Israeli players out of the stadium.