With so many big shots, Zahavi good as gold for Hapoel TA

Sinai Says: The past 12 months have seen Zahavi completely transform his career, becoming the Forrest Gump of Israeli soccer.

By
December 1, 2010 08:09
4 minute read.
ERAN ZAHAVI has come a long way since his time at

Zahavi 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

It’s safe to say that Eran Zahavi will go overlooked in many of the upcoming end-of-year ceremony awards.

After all, he lacks the charm of Hapoel Tel Aviv teammate Itai Shechter or the flair of fellow midfielder Gili Vermut, instead playing a supporting and often ignored role in Eli Gutman’s team formation.

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But the past 12 months have seen Zahavi completely transform his career, becoming the Forrest Gump of Israeli soccer, somehow always finding himself at the center of the most crucial and memorable moments in Hapoel’s remarkable run.

Exactly one year ago, Zahavi’s career was in limbo.

He started just one of Tel Aviv’s first 11 Premier League matches, with Nemanja Vucicevic keeping him out of the lineup.

There seemed to be little hope for Zahavi to become a major contributor at Hapoel. But he never lost faith, believing this was merely another low in the rollercoaster start to his career and that it was only a matter of time until he made his way to the top.

Zahavi entered Hapoel’s youth system as a six-year-old, but when the time came to join the senior squad, he struggled to break into the first team, leaving him to drop a league and go on loan to Ironi Ramat Hasharon in January 2007.

The midfielder spent a season-and-ahalf in the National League, getting vital playing time and learning his trade from the bottom up.

He returned to Tel Aviv ahead of the 2008/09 campaign, but started only nine of the team’s 33 league matches, and after being left on the bench at the start of the following season as well, he began wondering if his time to shine at Hapoel would ever come.

However, a rare vein condition in Vucicevic’s leg grounded the Serbian a year ago, opening the door for Zahavi.

“This is your chance to prove your worth. Don’t waste it,” Hapoel assistant coach Yossi Abuksis told Zahavi, and the rest is history.

Zahavi started in every one of Hapoel’s remaining 23 league matches, not only cementing his place as a key cog in Gutman’s machine, but also developing the knack of scoring vital goals which will live forever in Hapoel history.

Tel Aviv entered its final match of the league campaign on Saturday, May 15, needing a miracle to claim its first championship since 2000.

Not only did Hapoel have to beat arch-rival Betar Jerusalem at Teddy Stadium, but it also required Maccabi Haifa to fail to defeat Bnei Yehuda, which had nothing to play for.

However, with stoppage time looming, both matches were tied at 1-1.

Enter Zahavi.

With almost two of the allotted four minutes of added time already played, Betar goalkeeper Ariel Harush did well to save a shot from Vermut, only for Zahavi to pounce on the rebound and smash in the goal which clinched the most dramatic of league championships for Tel Aviv.

That goal alone would have been enough to etch Zahavi’s name in Hapoel history books, but it was only the appetizer.

With Tel Aviv trailing 1-0 from the first leg of its Champions League third qualifying round tie against Kazakh champion FK Aktobe last August, Zahavi scored the crucial opener in the return leg at Bloomfield, giving his side the breakthrough in the eventual 3-2 aggregate victory.

Next up was Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg.

After beating Salzburg 3-2 on the road in the first leg of the final qualifying round, Hapoel was the odds-on favorite to cruise into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in club history.

However, the Austrians took the lead in the first half at Bloomfield and another goal would have seen them advance at Tel Aviv’s expense.

Again, Zahavi to the rescue.

With two minutes of injury time already played, he received the ball on the edge of the box before shooting into the bottom left corner with his weaker left foot, sparking delirium at Bloomfield.

Zahavi’s latest, but certainly not last, unforgettable strike came last week.

With a match at Olympique Lyon to end its group campaign coming up, Hapoel knew that its encounter against SL Benfica at Bloomfield was its last realistic chance of claiming a victory in its debut season in the Champions League.

Once again, on the biggest stage, Zahavi stepped up.

He scored the opener in the 24th minute and wrapped up the 3-0 win in his favorite 92nd minute with another unstoppable effort off his right foot.

There seems to be something almost magical about Zahavi’s year.

Somehow, he possesses the gift of being at the right place at the right time, but these opportunities don’t fall into everyone’s lap. It is only those who never give up who get the chances, and Zahavi has made the most of his.

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