(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba looks to regain the form that led it to an historic continental campaign when it returns to Europa League action on Thursday night, hosting Besiktas of Turkey in the first leg of the round of 32.
Beersheba stunningly finished ahead of Italian giant Inter Milan and Southampton of the English Premier League to come through the group stage, going unbeaten in four matches against both opponents.
Three days after the 1-1 draw in Southampton which secured Beersheba’s place in the knockout rounds, the reigning Israeli champion defeated Beitar Jerusalem 3-1 for a club record ninth straight win in local league action.
Beersheba looked unstoppable two months ago, but a lot has changed since. The team has won only five of its past nine league games, with its lead at the top of the standings being cut to five points by Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Barak Bachar’s side was also knocked out in the State Cup round of 16 by Ironi Kiryat Shmona and has looked vulnerable time and again over recent weeks.
Beersheba can at least draw some confidence from the fact that even while struggling it has managed to triumph at Turner Stadium, winning for the 10th time in 11 league matches at home on Saturday by beating Hapoel Ashkelon 2-1. Beersheba has also only lost one of its last eight European games at home, to Sparta Prague in the group stage.
“We have been struggling in the league, but we will enter our Europa League match with extra drive,” said Bachar. “We want to prove that we deserve to be here. The league is serious business and this is more fun. The Europa League is like a bonus for us.”
Besiktas was handed a place in the Europa League knockout rounds after ending Champions League Group B in third place behind Napoli and Benfica. The Turkish champion was sent packing from the Champions League following a humbling 6-0 defeat to Dynamo Kiev in its final group match.
Besiktas leads the Turkish standings by two points, but suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat to Karabukspor on Friday.
Senol Gunes’s side hosts Beersheba in the second leg in Istanbul next Thursday and enters the tie as a firm favorite with a squad that includes Portugal’s Ricardo Quaresma, Brazilian Adriano and Dutchman Ryan Babel, among other familiar names.
“We are facing an excellent team, but we are playing at home and have registered some good results in Europe so far this season,” said Beersheba captain Elyaniv Barda, who didn’t play in the group stage due to injury but is hoping to feature on Thursday after scoring both goals against Ashkelon over the weekend.
“We don’t want the campaign to end and we certainly won’t be giving up without a fight.”