Hapoel TA players celebrate 311.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The Champions League group stage does not get under way for another two months, but Hapoel Tel Aviv’s campaign to reach European soccer’s most prestigious competition begins on Tuesday night with a must-win match against FK Zeljeznicar at Bloomfield Stadium.
The first leg of the second qualifying round against the Bosnian champion will be the first of six matches Hapoel will need to come through over the next six weeks if it’s to play in the group stage for the first time in its history.
It was just two months ago that Tel Aviv capped one of the most remarkable seasons in club history by claiming the Premier League title with a stoppage-time goal in the final match of the campaign, days after lifting the State Cup.
The short summer break meant Hapoel had little time to strengthen its squad, but the team’s management does deserve plenty of credit for managing to hold on to the stars of last season’s triumphant side.
Midfield magician Gili Vermut, defensive anchor Douglas da Silva and Nigeria’s World Cup goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama all had offers from the continent, but ended up remaining at the club, giving Hapoel much-needed quality and continuity.
Tel Aviv’s two main additions so far have been French midfielder Romain Rocchi and South African defender Bevan Fransman.
However, neither player is expected to start on Tuesday, with coach Eli Gutman wary of throwing his new recruits into the deep end so early in the season.
Enyeama only joined the team in training on Monday and Gutman could well opt to start ’keeper Galil Ben-Shaanan in his place.
Gutman is expected to name the same back-four with which he ended last season, with da Silva and Walid Badier to start in the center of defense and Omri Kende and Dedi Ben-Dayan to play on the right and left, respectively.
Vermut, Eran Zehavi and Avihai Yadin will take their place in the midfield once again, with new signing Yossi Shivhon to play in the center of the pitch.
Itai Shechter and Maharan Lala will start up-front, with Gutman still desperately searching for another striker for his squad.
Zeljeznicar claimed its first local league title in eight years last season, but Tuesday’s match against Hapoel will be its first in European competition since the 2004/05 campaign.
Nevertheless, Gutman has no intention of taking the Bosnians lightly.
“We know everything about Zeljeznicar,” Gutman said. “They have excellent attacking players and we know what to expect.
“Throughout last season we never once said we were the favorites ahead
of a match. We always said that we must be focused and motivated to
overcome the next hurdle and that will be the case once more on Tuesday.
The key is to play smart soccer and maintain our concentration and
Gutman is confident his team is as prepared as it can be ahead of a
match in the middle of July.
“Both teams know everything about each other,” he said. “Zeljeznicar
could be a legitimate Premier League team and is a tough hurdle
considering we are playing so early in the season.”
Not surprisingly, Zeljeznicar coach Amar Osim tried to play down his
team’s chances at Bloomfield.
“Hapoel is clearly the favorite,” he said. “They have more money, better
players and a lot more experience. However, this is soccer and anything