Hapoel Beersheba vs. Ludogorets.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba took a significant step towards yet another extended European campaign by beating Bulgarian champion Ludogorets 2-0 on Wednesday night in the first leg of the Champions League third qualifying round at Turner Stadium.
Beersheba visits Razgrad for the return leg next Wednesday, knowing that progress to the playoff round will move it within touching distance of the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history. It will also ensure the team has a berth in the Europa groups to fall back on.
Beersheba missed out on a place in the Champions groups by a single goal last season, losing to Celtic of Scotland 5-4 on aggregate in the final playoff round. The two-time reigning Israeli champion and the rest of the losers in the playoffs received a place in the Europa groups as a consolation and Hapoel went on to reach the round of 32.
Beersheba is determined to make it to the most prestigious stage of continental club soccer this season, and after comfortably overcoming Hungarian champion Honved in the second qualifying round, it opened a promising lead in the first leg against Ludogorets.
Beersheba secured its progress to the third qualifying round with last week’s 3-2 win in Budapest, completing a 5-3 aggregate victory. But it came at a cost, with striker Ben Sahar suffering a shoulder injury that could keep him out for over two months. Veteran striker Elyaniv Barda replaced Sahar in Budapest, but lasted only 27 minutes, leaving with a thigh injury. Beersheba also had to manage on Wednesday without Israeli forward Niv Zrihen, Spanish attacking midfielder Isaac Cuenca and new Czech striker Tomas Pekhart.
That meant coach Barak Bachar had to rely on Mohammad Ghadir as his lone striker, which proved to be just fine thanks to another dominant performance by Nigerian forward Anthony Nwakaeme.
The 28-year-old was almost unstoppable once more, netting the opener in the 19th minute after a well-timed pass by Maor Melikson before setting up substitute Michael Ohana’s second goal in the 79th minute. Nwakaeme had a lucrative move to China blocked by the club just before the start of the tie against Honved, but it has certainly not had any negative effect on his level of play.
If anything, Nwakaeme looks like he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, being directly involved in five of the team’s seven goals in the qualifiers to date, scoring three and providing two assists.
Ludogorets, which has played in the Champions League group stage in two of the past three seasons, will try and find a way to stop him by next week, with the Bulgarians still harboring hope of advancing.
Ludogorets, which started with only one Bulgarian player, is a different team at home, as seen in its impressive comeback in the second leg of the second qualifying round last week. After losing 2-1 on the road in the first leg at Zalgiris Vilnius, the Bulgarians found themselves in a 1-0 hole early in the second leg before bouncing back with four unanswered goals.
Beersheba coach Bachar made a point of not celebrating at the final whistle on Wednesday, insisting that his team still has a long way to go to book its place in the playoffs.