Hapoel Beersheba midfielder Dan Einbinder..
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
It was in the first leg of the playoffs last season that Hapoel Beersheba’s Champions League fate was decided.
Beersheba may have come within a goal of overturning the 5-2 defeat to Celtic in Glasgow, but its impressive performance in the second leg at Turner Stadium was only good enough for a 2-0 win that ended its dreams of reaching the group stage.
Beersheba made its way back to the playoffs this season after defending its Premier League title and scrapping through two qualifying rounds over the past month. And unlike last season, this time it fully expects to qualify for the group stage for the first time in club history.
Beersheba avoided the big names in the playoffs, being paired with Slovenian champion NK Maribor. Hapoel hosts the first leg at Turner on Wednesday, with the second leg to be played in Slovenia next Tuesday.
Maribor, which has failed to reach a group stage in European competition in the last two seasons, overcame Zrinjski of Bosnia and FH of Iceland to reach the playoffs. The Slovenians took part in the Champions League groups in 2014/15 in what was their second-ever appearance in the prestigious stage.
Beersheba is looking to become the fourth Israeli club to play in the Champions League group stage. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the last to do so in 2015/16, also reaching the group stage in 2004/05.
Hapoel Tel Aviv qualified in 2010/11 and Maccabi Haifa has done so twice in the past (2002/03, 2009/10).
Beersheba defeated Honved of Hungary in the second qualifying round before scrapping through to the playoffs by the skin of its teeth. It suffered a 3-1 defeat to Bulgarian champion Ludogorets in the second leg of the third qualifying round, but advanced on away goals thanks to its 2-0 victory in the first leg in Israel.
Beersheba would gladly settle for a win by the same score-line on Wednesday, especially with Portuguese defender Miguel Vitor out injured. The backbone of the team’s defense was diagnosed with ligament damage to his right knee after being injured in the Israeli Super Cup win over Bnei Yehuda last Thursday.
Beersheba has yet to announce if Vitor will require surgery, but he will definitely miss the next few weeks of action, including both legs against Maribor.
Midfielder Dan Einbiner also hobbled off in the Super Cup, but he has recovered from his groin injury and will be fit to play. Spanish attacking midfielder Isaac Cuenca could also finally make his debut for Beersheba, with the former Barcelona player overcoming his ankle injury.
With Vitor facing an extended absence, Beersheba has wasted little time in bolstering its defense, signing Hatem Abd Elhamed from Ashdod SC on Tuesday. Loai Taha is expected to fill Vitor’s shoes on Wednesday.
Regardless of the outcome of its playoff tie, Beersheba has already guaranteed itself continental play deep into the winter. The 10 teams to lose in the Champions League playoffs will be handed a berth in the Europa League group stage.
Beersheba has also already secured itself a big pay day of around 5.6 million euros from UEFA prize money alone.
That sum will more than double should it go on to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
“We have proven down the years that we don’t rely on any one player,” said Bachar on Tuesday. “This is why we have a deep and strong squad. Every player has a worthy replacement.”
“Maribor is a very tactical and disciplined team, but we are entering this tie with the goal of achieving something historic,” Bachar added. “We know they will also give their all and we are preparing for a very difficult match. We want to see Beersheba in the group stage and we aren’t even thinking of the possibility that we might not advance.”
On TV: Champions League playoff round, first leg: Hapoel Beersheba vs Maribor (live on Sport5 at 9:45 p.m.); SSC Napoli vs Nice (live on Sport5+ at 9:45 p.m.)