Sinai Says: Not satisfied with back-to-back titles, Hapoel Beersheba looks forward

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May 3, 2017 04:04




Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat is not settling for two consecutive Premier League championships

Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat is not settling for two consecutive Premier League championships, targeting a place in the Champions League group stage next season.. (photo credit:DANNY MARON)

There she was. Sitting among the fans in Netanya Stadium, just like four years ago, nervously awaiting for the final whistle to arrive.

But while the setting had not changed, little else remained the same.

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On May 4, 2013, the overwhelming emotion felt by Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat was relief. Despite her massive investment in the club, Beersheba had only avoided relegation to the National League in its final match of the 2012/13 season, beating Maccabi Netanya 3-0 on the road.

Barkat took over the club six years earlier, but she had little to show for her work and millions.

One could have hardly blamed her had she decided to throw in the white towel.

In fact, she came close to doing so on several occasions, but ultimately her resilience overcame her frustration.

Four years later, this past Saturday, Barkat was celebrating yet again in Netanya. But this time the sensation was very different. It was satisfaction rather than relief that Barkat was feeling. Satisfaction at a job well done, one which at one stage few deemed possible.

With the 2-1 win in Netanya against its main challenger Maccabi Tel Aviv, Beersheba secured a second straight Premier League championship, cementing its place as the standard-bearer in Israeli soccer.

Last year’s league title ended a 40-year drought for Beersheba and announced its return as a leading force. This season’s triumph proved Beersheba is not only here to stay, but is also plotting to dominate for many years to come.

Beersheba climbed to the top of the standings in late-October following its seventh match of the season and has remained there ever since. Maccabi managed to move equal on points for 48 hours during February, but Beersheba went on to win its next 10 matches, a new club record, culminating with Saturday’s title-clinching victory.

Despite Maccabi’s best efforts, there was a sense from the start of the campaign that it was when, rather than if, Beersheba would take the title.

Beersheba’s triumph is even more impressive when considering its unexpected run in Europe.

Israeli teams have rarely managed to compete successfully on two fronts, with one usually coming at the expense of the other.

But Beersheba didn’t only dominate the Premier League, it also reached the Europa League round-of-32 in the process, coming through a group stage which included Inter Milan and Southampton.

In four years, Beersheba has gone from being a sleeping giant with unfulfilled potential to the club everyone dreams to emulate.

Beersheba claimed a fourth league title in club history on Saturday, with its first two league titles also coming in consecutive years in 1975 and 1976. In the 40 years since, only three other clubs managed to win back-to-back championships - Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem. Beersheba joined that illustrious list, and did so with a true team effort.

Maccabi Tel Aviv, for example, had one player in particular to thank for winning the three previous championships, with Eran Zahavi’s exploits nothing short of vital to the side’s success. His departure for China last summer left a void the yellow-and-blue could not fill, something which will likely not happen in Beersheba.

Hapoel is nowhere near as dependent on any one player, and has not only got the core of its squad under contract for 2017/18, but has also made sure to keep its stars happy.

Such is Beersheba’s success, that it is even hard to select its player of the season.

There are more than a few who deserve an honorable mention.

Portuguese defender Miguel Vitor, who joined from PAOK Thessaloniki in Greece last summer, has proven to be a real steal. He only played in 19 league matches due to injury, but Beersheba picked up 52 of a possible 57 points in those games and his mere presence seems to reassure not only the club’s defense, but also its offense, which feels far more confident pushing forward knowing it has Vitor as cover.

Nigerian forward Anthony Nwakaeme is the only player in the Premier League to have reached double figures in both goals (14) and assists (10), while his countryman John Ogu is a stalwart in the center of the field.

Beersheba has also made a special effort to ensure it gets its hands on the best Israeli talent available. The signing of Elyaniv Barda and Maor Buzaglo within a few weeks in the summer of 2013 shattered the glass ceiling for the club, and they have been followed by the likes of Maor Melikson and Ben Sahar.

Beersheba is always also keeping one eye on the future. It signed the 22-year-old Niv Zrihen and 20-year-old Amir Khalaila before the close of the January transfer window, handing each player four-and-a-half year deals. Their additions came on the back of the signing of 21-year-old Michael Ohana, who arrived on the last day of the summer transfer window. Zrihen and Ohana both made contributions this season, while Khalaila was sent on loan to Hapoel Ramat Gan in the National League to gain experience.

No squad is complete without experienced veterans.

Beersheba has those with the likes of Barda and Maharan Radi, who has won five consecutive championships, taking three in a row with Maccabi Tel Aviv before moving to Beersheba.

The only player Beersheba is likely to miss next season is Maor Buzaglo. The 29-year-old, who was unstoppable for periods this season, was set to sign a lucrative deal in Turkey before suffering a knee injury last month that could sideline him for more than six months. The cruel setback could actually end up keeping him in Beersheba, which is planning to offer him a new longterm contract.

But even without Buzaglo, Beersheba is perfectly placed to continue its dominance next season, especially with head coach Barak Bachar to be back for another campaign.

Bachar is just 37-years-old, but he became the first coach to win back-to-back championships since Roni Levy, who took three straight with Maccabi Haifa (2003-2006).

With Bachar in charge and the squad only likely to get stronger, Beersheba is a clear favorite to make it three in a row next season.

Beersheba is also determined to realize the one dream that has eluded it to date - reaching the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history.

Beersheba came within a single goal of making the group stage this season, almost overturning a 5-2 first-leg defeat to Celtic of Scotland in the playoffs before ultimately settling for a 2-0 win in the return leg and a place in the Europa League.

Beersheba is confident that with a bit of luck it can take that extra step in 2017/18. Amidst Saturday’s celebrations, Barkat repeatedly set her team the target of bringing the Champions League to Beersheba. If the experience of the past four years has taught us anything, it is likely only a matter of time until Barkat also achieves that goal.

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