Hapoel Beersheba defender Shir Tzedek (center) celebrates with Anthony Nwakaeme (right) and Maor Melikson..
(photo credit: MEIR EVEN HAIM)
Hapoel Beersheba took a stunning step towards realizing its Champions League dream on Wednesday night, registering a major upset to reach the playoff round of the qualifiers with a 1-0 win over Greek powerhouse Olympiacos at Turner Stadium.
Olympiacos entered the third qualifying round tie as a firm favorite to advance, playing in the group stage in each of the past five seasons and in 17 of the last 19 years.
However, after registering a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Athens, Beersheba completed the job on Wednesday thanks to Shir Tzedek’s 79th-minute winner.
Beersheba will discover on Friday who it will face in the playoffs, but regardless of the outcome it has already guaranteed itself continental play deep into the winter.
The 10 teams to lose in the Champions League playoffs will be handed an automatic berth to the Europa League group stage.
Beersheba, which claimed its first Israeli championship in 40 years last season, has also already secured itself a big pay day, with a berth in the Europa League group stage worth approximately 2.5 million euros.
Beersheba is looking to become the sixth Israeli team to play in the Champions League group stage. Maccabi Tel Aviv qualified last season for the second time in club history (2004/05, 2015/16), with Hapoel Tel Aviv reaching the prestigious stage in 2010/11 and Maccabi Haifa doing so twice in the past (2002/03, 2009/10).
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Beersheba got off to an encouraging start and registered the first chance of the match in the 10th minute. Maor Melikson’s powerful effort could only be parried by Olympiacos goalkeeper Stefanos Kapino, but there was no Beersheba player on hand to turn in the rebound.
The Greeks seized control after that, but struggled to create scoring opportunities and Beersheba stopper Dudu Goresh didn’t have to make any difficult saves in the first half.
Despite spending much of the first 45 minutes on the back foot, the hosts would register the final chance of the half, with Melikson once more being involved, sending a shot just above the top right corner after cutting in from the left.
Beersheba got the second half off to a lively start and should have really taken the lead in the 56th minute. Anthony Nwakaeme broke between two Olympiacos defenders, but with only the ’keeper to beat had his shot denied by an outstretched Kapino.
Beersheba coach Barak Bachar, who signed a two-year contract extension on Tuesday, sent in new Brazilian striker Lucio in place of Elyaniv Barda in the 60th minute in the hope of invigorating his team’s attack.
It did little to change the complexion of the match, but Hapoel still enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Scoring opportunities remained at a premium, and the opener finally arrived from the one of the least likely sources.
Tzedek, who returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing the team’s first three games in Europe due to suspension, received the ball on the edge of the box and found the bottom right corner with an accurate effort.
Olympiacos sent everyone forward in search of an equalizer that would have sent it through on away goals, but Beersheba held on to move within touching distance of the Champions League group stage.
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