Kiryat Shmona shoots for glory and riches

Israel league champs can secure 5.1 million euros with progression to group stage.

RavidGazal 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
RavidGazal 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
What seemed like an impossible dream not long ago could be on the verge of becoming a reality when Ironi Kiryat Shmona visits BATE Borisov of Belarus in the first leg of the Champions League playoffs on Wednesday night.
Kiryat Shmona claimed a stunning championship in just its fourth year in the top flight last season, becoming the first real small club to win the league title since Bnei Yehuda in the 1989/90 campaign and the first team from outside of Israel’s big three cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, to lift the trophy since Maccabi Netanya did so 29 years ago.
Its progress to the playoff round with victories over MSK Zilina of Slovakia and Neftci PFK of Azerbaijan has ensured Kiryat Shmona a place in the Europa League group stage even should it fall to Borisov, but the Israeli champ has a far bigger prize in its sights.
Kiryat Shmona has already ensured itself 2.1 million euros by reaching the playoff round and progress to the group stage will grant it another 5.1 million just in prize money even should it fail to pick up a single point in its six matches.
The prize money alone from qualification for the Champions League will cover the club’s entire expenses for the upcoming campaign, but Kiryat Shmona players will be far more concerned with achieving a lifelong ambition on Wednesday.
Kiryat Shmona avoided Celtic of Scotland, Anderlecht of Belgium and Basel of Switzerland in the playoff draw, but while Borisov is unknown to many, it will enter the tie as the firm favorite.
BATE, the champion of Belarus for the past six seasons, has two prior appearances in the Champions League group stage in 2008/09 and 2011/12, playing in the Europa League group stage in 2009/10 and 2010/11.
“We believe in ourselves despite this tough draw,” Kiryat Shmona coach Gili Landau said.
“We are facing a tactical match, but if we can cancel out our opponent’s strengths we have a good chance.
“Borisov might not be a club with a sexy name, but this is a very strong and well organized team.
“We are certainly not the favorites, but our run so far gives us confidence and the players believe they can do it.”
Kiryat Shmona impressed with a 4-0 thrashing of Neftci following a 2-2 draw in the first leg and will be looking to make the most of the vulnerability shown by Borisov in its home matches so far.
BATE needed late goals to rescue itself in its two previous qualifying fixtures, scoring twice in injury time to earn a dramatic 3-2 comeback win against FK Vardar in the first leg of the second qualifying round before being gifted a 93rd-minute own goal equalizer to draw 1-1 against Debreceni VSC in the third qualifying round.
However, Borisov has a significant advantage over Kiryat Shmona having already played 19 matches in the Belarusian league, while the Israeli league will only begin this coming weekend.
“Borisov has more experience in these competitions than we do so we certainly can’t underestimate them,” said Kiryat Shmona captain Adrian Rochet.
“I hope we will be the hungrier team as that could prove to be the difference.”
Kiryat Shmona will have to make do without two of its best players over the two legs against the Belarus champion.
Forward David Solari will sit out the next six months after tearing cruciate ligaments in his knee, while Bryan Gerzicich will be sorely missed in the center of the field after being ruled out for a month, also with a knee injury.
Ravid Gazal is set to fill in for Gerzicich, and despite all the difficulties, Rochet remains optimistic.
“We are 180 minutes away from a massive piece of history,” he said. “We are slowly starting to comprehend what we are achieving.
“The Champions League is the dream of every player and we will give everything to be there.”