Hapoel Beersheba’s Eliyaniv Barda.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
It was only fitting that it was Elyaniv Barda who scored the crucial opener for Hapoel Beersheba in Monday night’s dramatic win against Beitar Jerusalem.
After leading the team’s title challenge with 13 goals in its first 24 matches, the veteran striker lost his scoring touch and place in the starting lineup over the last month, being forced to watch from the sidelines as his teammates battled threetime defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv for the title.
The 34-year-old, who began his career at Beersheba, returned to the team from Belgian side Genk three years ago, a signing that broke the glass ceiling for the club and has already gone down as a turning point in its history.
Barda returned only a few months after the team avoided relegation in the final match of the 2012/13 season and played a vital role in the club’s resurrection over the past three years. He was bitterly disappointed at being left out of the lineup for last week’s crunch showdown against Maccabi Tel Aviv at Bloomfield Stadium, with the encounter ending in a 0-0 draw that kept Beersheba three points clear at the top of the standings with three matches to play.
Barda had to once more settle for a substitute’s role on Monday, but this time he would end the night as the hero.
After 77 frustrating minutes for Beersheba, he netted the breakthrough, 20 minutes after entering the game. Ovidiu Hoban secured the win for Beersheba six minutes later, and with Maccabi only managing a 1-1 draw against Hapoel Ra’anana, Beersheba needs just two more points from its final two matches to clinch the title regardless of Maccabi’s results.
Beersheba can secure the title with a win at Maccabi Haifa on Saturday or should Maccabi Tel Aviv fail to defeat Beitar Jerusalem at Teddy Stadium.
Should Beersheba come up short on Saturday, it will have another opportunity in its final match of the season against Bnei Sakhnin at Turner Stadium while Tel Aviv will host Maccabi Haifa.
“This was the happiest goal of my career,” said an emotional Barda, who left the pitch in tears at the final whistle. “It was one of the easiest goals I have scored, but it is so significant and I’m so happy.
“When I came to Beersheba and I spoke about winning the championship people laughed at me,” he added. “We are very, very close now. We took a very significant step and I’m trying to remain calm. Winning a championship with Beersheba is not like taking a championship with another club. I didn’t even allow myself to dream about this at certain stages but we are almost there and we need to take that one extra step to make the dream come true.”
Beersheba coach Barak Bachar urged his players to keep their cool.
“Clearly we took a very big step but we need to wait until it is official before we celebrate,” said Bachar. “We know that we will be champions with a win and we don’t want to go down as a team that squandered an opportunity like this.”
Maccabi is aiming to become just the second team in local soccer history to win four straight championships, the first since Hapoel Petah Tikva took five consecutive league titles between 1959 and 1963.
It is also looking to become the first local side to defend its title in the same season in which it reached the Champions League group stage, but following four consecutive draws that seems extremely unlikely.
“Beersheba has a 95 percent chance of taking the championship,” said Maccabi captain Eran Zahavi, who has gone four straight matches without finding the back of the net since breaking the 61-year-old record for goals in a season.
“I congratulate them. They had a great season. So did we, but they had a better season and they deserve credit for that. I can’t complain because we reached the Champions League group stage and are in the State Cup final. But if we can only draw our last four games we don’t deserve to be champions.”
Jerusalem deducted two points Meanwhile, Beitar Jerusalem was deducted two points by the Israel Football Association’s disciplinary court on Tuesday for the racist chants shouted by its fans during the recent match against Bnei Sakhnin at Teddy Stadium.
Beitar, which plans to appeal the ruling, remains in third place, five points ahead of Maccabi Haifa.