Hapoel Beersheba striker Elyaniv Barda.
(photo credit: MAOR ELKASLASI)
After coming within a single goal of reaching the Champions League group stage last season, Hapoel Beersheba embarks on another quest to qualify for the most prestigious stage of European club soccer on Wednesday.
The two-time reigning Israeli champion hosts Budapest Honved at Turner Stadium in the first leg of the second qualifying round. Beersheba will need to come through three qualifying rounds to be among the 32 teams in the group stage.
Last season it almost overturned a 5-2 first-leg defeat to Celtic of Scotland in the final playoff round before ultimately only managing a 2-0 win in the return leg and receiving a place in the Europa League as consolation.
Beersheba bounced back to stunningly finish ahead of both Inter Milan and Southampton to advance to the round of 32 before being knocked out by Besiktas of Turkey.
That was by far the club’s best-ever campaign in Europe and Beersheba is hoping to build on that experience, with almost all of last season’s roster back for another year.
Midfielder Maor Buzaglo, who is anyway out injured until January, is the most notable name to have left the club, with Beersheba’s also deciding to part ways with Romanian midfielder Ovidiu Hoban and Brazilian defender William Soares leaving to make room for new foreign players.
Beersheba’s biggest signing of the summer was that of former Barcelona midfielder Isaac Cuenca. The 26-yearold has 16 La Liga appearances to his name from his time at Barcelona and played for Granada CF in the Spanish top division last season.
Cuenca will not be available to play in either of the games against Honved, being ruled out for at least two weeks after spraining his knee in training.
Beersheba has also strengthened its Israeli core, bringing in Dan Einbinder, Dor Elo and Oren Biton.
Beersheba avoided an unwanted distraction before the match when Nigerian midfielder Anthony Nwakaeme announced that he is happy at the club.
Nwakaeme asked to sit out training over the weekend after the club turned down an offer from China that would have significantly increased his wages. However, after meeting with club officials he took to Instagram and announced: “Forget About The News To China I’m Here To Stay With Hapoel Beer Sheva [sic].”
Nwakaeme has an important role to play on Wednesday, with Beersheba needing his individual skills to break down Honved. The Hungarians will aim to keep the tie alive until next week’s second leg in Budapest, that will be played in front of empty stands after the club was punished by UEFA for racist chanting by its fans.
“The most important thing for us is to retain our hunger,” said Beersheba coach Barak Bachar. “We have achieved some nice things but we want to accomplish even more, break more records and realize more dreams.
“We can’t think that what we have already achieved will serve us in the future,” added Bachar, who is starting his third season with the club. “Our new signings will bring in new blood and upgrade us. This club isn’t content with past success. We are always thinking about what we can do better.”
On Thursday, Israel’s three representatives in the Europa League, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Yehuda, will all be in action in the second qualifying round.
Maccabi, meanwhile, strengthened its squad on Monday with the signing of Cristian Battocchio.
The Argentine-born 25-year-old signed a two-year-deal with an option for a further season. The diminutive midfielder, who made 20 appearances for Italy’s U-20 and U-21’s, joined on a free transfer after spending the last two seasons in France playing for Stade Brest.
“Cristian is the kind of player we feel can give us a different dimension and upgrade our game,”