It wasn’t just that Elyaniv Barda led Hapoel Beersheba to victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv at Vasermil Stadium on Monday night.
The 32-year-old striker essentially took all 10 of his teammates on the pitch and the 9,000 Beersheba fans in the stands, put them on his shoulders and single-handedly secured a win which could transform the entire season.
Clearly Barda required some help. After all, even he can’t cross the ball and also head it into goal. But his hat-trick in the 3-2 win over the two-time defending champion will go down as one of the most dominant displays by a player in the Israeli Premier League since the turn of the century.
By any objective measure, Beersheba was outplayed by Maccabi on Monday.
The yellow-and-blue dominated the possession and created numerous more scoring opportunities than the hosts. However, while Tel Aviv failed to convert its chances, Barda made Beersheba’s count.
The Barda show began after less than three minutes when he received a perfectly-weighted pass from Roei Gordana and coolly slotted the ball beyond Maccabi goalkeeper Juan Pablo.
The visitors seized complete control after that and finally scored a deserved equalizer in the 56th minute through an Eran Zahavi penalty.
The match seemed to be heading to a draw entering the final 10 minutes, but Barda sent the local fans into delirium when he tucked the ball in from close range to give Beersheba the lead once more with five minutes to play.
It took Maccabi one minute to renew the game and exactly one minute later Beersheba fans were tearing their hair out.
Tel Aviv leveled the score almost immediately, with Beersheba ‘keeper Austin Ejide parrying Dor Micha’s shot straight to the feet of Tal Ben-Haim, who had no trouble slotting the ball into the roof of the net.
The equalizer seemed to break the hearts of every Beersheba player and fan, apart from Barda.
Barda cheered on his teammates and just one minute later rose above the Maccabi defense to head in his third goal of the night and score the winner with two minutes to play.
“I still can’t quite comprehend what happened,” said Barda around 30 minutes after the final whistle. “It was a crazy match. We played against an outstanding team and the match could have gone either way.”
In characteristic fashion, Barda quickly brought everybody back down to earth.
“This was only our third match of the season and we have picked up just three more points,” he explained. “After we drew 1-1 with Beitar Jerusalem in our first match of the campaign everyone dropped their heads apart from us. Likewise, we will not be blinded by this match.
“I can honestly say that had a different player scored today and we had won I would have gone home just as happy as I am at the moment,”he added. “The success of the team is the most important thing for me.I returned to Beersheba for matches like this.”
After six seasons at Genk in Belgium, Barda decided to return to his boyhood club last summer.
Barda, who made 196 appearances across all competitions at Genk, scoring 67 goals – the most ever at the club by a foreign player – began his career at Beersheba in 1998, going on to play for Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv before moving to Belgium.
Beersheba owner Alona Barkat handed Barda a three-year contract that will earn him almost one million dollars, but the striker has been worth every shekel so far.
He only scored seven goals in 35 league matches last season, but his work ethic and leadership inspired an entire club and his influence both on and off the field has been priceless.
Unlike other players, Barda and his family live in the city and he is a local hero. Over 30 minutes after the final whistle on Monday he had still yet to shower and get out of his sweat-drenched kit as he was still taking pictures on the pitch with local children.
Barda’s addition broke the glass ceiling for Beersheba, which had struggled to attract big names in previous seasons despite lucrative offers.
Just a few days after unveiling Barda, Beersheba announced the signing of fellow Israel international Maor Buzaglo, luring him back home from Belgium, where he played for Standard Liege.
Beersheba was Maccabi’s only challenger for the title last season, ultimately ending the campaign as the runner-up, its highest finish since it won its last league title in 1976.
Maccabi was the only team to win its first two matches this season and Monday’s result saw Beersheba move one point ahead of the yellow-and-blue and tied on seven points with first-place Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
It has been more than a decade since the Premier League last experienced a three-horse title race.
Only two points separated Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv at the end of the 2002/03 campaign, with the yellowand- blue ultimately edging the Greens for the title on goal difference.
Over recent seasons there have been no more than two teams at best contesting for the championship, with many campaigns being dominated by a single side.
However, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa, Beersheba, and possibly even Kiryat Shmona and Hapoel Tel Aviv, have all shown early signs that this season’s title race could be one of the most exhilarating in recent times.
If Beersheba challenges for the title until the final whistle of the season, it will be thanks to Barda.
“We have a true winner in Barda,” said Beersheba coach Elisha Levy, who deserves plenty of credit after his gamble of sending on striker Shlomi Arbeitman in place of midfielder Gordana in the 68th minute proved to be a genius stroke.
“Barda peaked today, but he also received help from his teammates. You can’t beat Maccabi Tel Aviv if you don’t play as a team. We recorded a very important win which shows how strong we are.”
Amazingly, Barda had gone almost seven months without scoring. His last hat-trick came in September 2009 when he netted three times in the Israel national team’s 7-0 victory over Luxembourg.
The last time Beersheba won a title Barda was still playing in the club’s youth team. The 1997 State Cup is the only piece of silverware the club has lifted in 38 years, but the drought will surely end soon.
Beersheba is making all the right moves and is set to also finally leave the dilapidated Vasermil and move into a new stadium next year.
And it also has Barda.firstname.lastname@example.org