The main point in the Israeli team's favor is the new management team.
By JEREMY LAST
The summer break is usually the most difficult time of the year for fans of local soccer. The long days drag on with only a few rumors about new players or new coaches to break the boredom. Luckily, this only lasts for a few weeks. Because by the start of July, summer training has begun and, more intriguingly, the draws for the European competitions are made.
For Betar Jerusalem, last Friday was a significant day. Having won the league title for the first time in nine years in May, Betar finally has been given the chance to try and qualify for the UEFA Champions League - the most exclusive and prestigious club competition in the world.
Things were definitely not going be easy for the Israeli side whichever team it was drawn against.
But to be pitted against Danish champion FC Copenhagen has made the light at the end of the qualifying tunnel seem even further than before.
Copenhagen is not just the biggest team in Denmark, but it has recently become one of the powerhouses of Scandanavian soccer. The realization that the Danes managed to beat the mighty Ajax in last season's qualifying round and then also beat eventual semifinalist Manchester United and draw with Portuguese team Benfica in its first ever appearance in the group stage will no doubt put shivers down the spines of the Betar management.
The main point in the Israeli team's favor is the new management team. Last year's head coach Yossi Mizrahi was clearly not up for the job. He lacked any sort of style or air of authority. His replacement Yitzhak Schum is a different proposition all together. Not only has he experience with an Israeli club in the Champions League group stages with Maccabi Haifa a couple of years back, but he has also excelled on the European stage when he coached Panathinaikos in Greece.
Schum is a serious coach who Betar fans will hope will bring a serious attitude to the Betar playing staff. Giora Spiegel, who has joined as the team manager, and former captain Itzik Korenfein, the new CEO, should also bring an air of honesty and determination and a businesslike attitude to the club which was missing in recent seasons.
Preparation for the two-leg matchup against Copenhagen is crucial. Last summer Betar seemed to be preparing well over the summer for its UEFA Cup campaign. Ossie Ardiles had been brought in as a new coach and the videos relayed back from the training camps in Holland and Romania created a picture of a determined, professional and happy squad. However, things did not work out at all. Betar fell apart in the UEFA Cup games and soon Ardiles was shown the exit by Arkadi Gaydamak.
We can expect a totally different approach by Schum. Most telling was a quote released in the Israeli media on Monday where Betar defender Yoav Ziv said the team had not worked at all hard during last summer's preseason, a situation which had led to the team's, and Ardiles's downfall.
It's not going to be easy for Betar on July 31, with the first game in Denmark, but with good preparation the Israelis could produce a shock result, which would incidentally only take them through to a second qualifying game against even higher quality oppositoin.
The other Israeli team which featured in the UEFA draw in Nyon last week was Maccabi Tel Aviv which will face Andorran minnows Santa Colomo in the UEFA Cup first qualifying round. Considering the population of Andorra is only 70,000 and this team only came second in the local league, Maccabi shouldn't be too concerned. As always is the case, there will be tougher tests to come.
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