Hapoel Beersheba players.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
With the pain still so fresh, anyone connected with Hapoel Beersheba will likely do their best to avoid any mention of Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw.
When they do finally check its outcome, there is no doubt they will be pondering what might have been, the teams they may have faced, the stars that could have graced Turner Stadium.
Beersheba’s dream of reaching the Champions group stage for the first time in club history was dashed in heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday night when the two-time reigning Israeli champion was knocked out by Slovenian champion NK Maribor on away goals. Hapoel entered the second leg of the playoffs with a 2-1 lead, but couldn’t complete the job, losing 1-0 in Slovenia. The tie ended at 2-2 on aggregate, but Maribor advanced thanks to its goal at Turner last week.
By virtue of reaching the playoffs, Beersheba receives a place in the Europa League group stage as a consolation prize, just as it did last season.
Maccabi Tel Aviv will try and join it in Friday’s Europa draw when it hosts Altach of Austria in Netanya on Thursday night, holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg of the playoffs.
Illustrious opponents of the likes of Arsenal and AC Milan could still be on their way to Israel, with Beersheba already guaranteeing itself 6.34 million euro in UEFA prize money alone.
But that does little to dim the disappointment from missing out on qualification for the Champions group stage in such painful fashion.
Hapoel really thought this would be its year, especially after receiving a favorable draw in the playoffs. Beersheba squandered chances to win by a greater margin in the first leg and only really showed up in the return leg when it was too late. Mitja Viler gave Maribor the lead in the 15th minute, and despite knowing it needed to score to have any chance, Beersheba didn’t register its first shot on target until the 81st minute. Maribor’s goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic didn’t have to make a difficult save until the 90th minute, but it was some save, keeping out Anthony Nawkaeme’s header with an acrobatic leap. The final whistle arrived soon after, and while Maribor’s squad, including Israeli Marwan Kabha, celebrated deliriously, Beersheba’s players slumped to the ground heartbroken, knowing they may never get a better chance to reach the group stage.
“We missed a huge opportunity. But that is how it sometimes goes in soccer,” said Bachar, who will have to lift his players ahead of Sunday’s Premier League clash at Maccabi Haifa.
Club owner Alona Barkat said she was proud of the players and insisted she is confident Beersheba will reach the Champions group stage one day.
“I’m very disappointed, like anyone else who loves the team,” noted Barkat.
“The players gave everything but unfortunately it wasn’t to be this time. We will continue to dream and we will accomplish this. It will happen.”
While Beersheba is still trying to come to terms with being demoted to the Europa League, Maccabi Tel Aviv will be ecstatic should it secure its progress to the Europa groups on Thursday.
After being humbled by Beitar Jerusalem in its Premier League opener, Maccabi Tel Aviv shifts its focus back to continental action, looking to extend its record winning streak and complete its progress to the group stage.
Maccabi was outwitted and outplayed in a 3-0 defeat to Beitar on Sunday, but has so far cruised through Europa qualifying, winning seven straight games by a combined goal difference of 13-1, including last week’s 1-0 victory over Altach in the first leg of the playoffs in Austria.
Maccabi is aiming to participate in the group stage of a European competition for a third straight season, reaching the Champions League groups in 2015/16 before qualifying for the Europa groups last year.
New coaching consultant, former England manager Steve McClaren, is expected to sit on the bench beside head coach Jordi Cruyff for at least part of the match. Cruyff insisted on Wednesday that he was responsible for the Englishman’s arrival.
“I don’t think Mitch [Maccabi owner Mitch Goldhar] after five years would put obligatory somebody on top of me,” explained Cruyff. “I played under Steve at Manchester United and was a substitute most of the time and always liked the way he kept the players who didn’t play motivated.”
“The truth is Steve has always been in contact,” added Cruyff. “We were in contact a few years ago when we were looking for a coach. For me the main thing is that it is a person that knows me very good from many years ago and we felt that it was something that could help the staff. Whoever wants to see a conspiracy theory I wish you all the best and I hope it is a success in the cinema but here it is not happening.”