The Last Word: It's make or break time for Betar

J'lem club faces Polish champion Wisla Krakow on Wednesday in Champions League second qualifying round.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
For the second year in a row Betar Jerusalem will go into the biggest match of its season with a partially remodeled team which has only played a handful of preseason friendlies together since the summer break. This isn't surprising and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. The first official game played by last season's league winners will always be a Champions League qualifier, the tie which essentially makes or breaks the team's campaign. It's not that the Israeli Premier League season isn't important for local clubs, but in reality it is nothing but a long, drawn out, qualifying tournament for Europe. The whole aim of the league campaign is to win the coveted opportunity to have a chance of qualifying for the world's most prestigious club event - the UEFA Champions League. So, on Wednesday, Betar will face Polish champion Wisla Krakow at Teddy Stadium in the first leg of the Champions League second qualifying round, knowing that a poor performance will likely end its chances of advancing, finishing its European season before it has had a real chance to begin. The winner of the tie has a good chance of playing a team which came fourth in the big European leagues such as Italy, Spain and England in the third qualifying round for a place in the Champions League group stage. And if it loses the third qualifying round, it at least has the consolation of playing in the UEFA Cup. But if Betar loses against Krakow over two legs, its European campaign will be over, just as it was at this stage last year when Jerusalem couldn't get past FC Copenhagen. The stakes are the highest they can be and we would expect the preparation to reflect this. But, despite the completion of two training camps in Europe over the last few weeks, watching Betar play in its preseason friendlies it seems depressingly obvious how much the team lacks in class and professionalism. It may be far and away the best team in Israel, but Itzhak Schum needs to create more dramatic changes if Jerusalem is to have a chance of even getting past its Polish opponent. Some of the Betar friendlies were broadcast on television over the last few weeks, and each time the yellow and black (playing in its blue training kit) played without the skill, panache and focus it would need to do well in Europe. It is important to note that the preparation appears to be a little better than last year, when main striker Romulo only arrived at the club a few days before the first game against Copenhagen. Romulo's replacement Sebastian Abreu has been at the club for two weeks now and has massive experience, most recently winning the Argentinian league with River Plate. But Abreu hasn't had any stunning success since joining Betar and fellow new signing Moshe Ohayon was slow to the ball way too often in Switzerland this week. Betar hasn't dug deep enough into the transfer market and is left with a team which is far too similar to last season's side for it to do any better. Besides this, the preparation for the Champions League qualifier should have been started much earlier. It was obvious from around February that Jerusalem would win the league, so the team should have been focussed on next week's game from then onwards, with the management building a winning mentality. Quite conversely, Jerusalem lost steam with more than a month of the season to go and jogged towards the end of the season, losing a number of games in the process. And there is also a gulf in class with Krakow. While Betar stuck to playing aganist lesser-known European teams, the Poles faced Liverpool in a preseason friendly last Saturday. Not only did they hold their own against an admittedly experimental Liverpool team, but they could have even won the match had an offside decision gone their way. Krakow played an impressive game, switching the ball with aplomb and playing it into the danger zones around the sides of the penalty area while confusing the Liverpool defense. If Betar Jerusalem is to beat Krakow next week the team needs to pull itself together and focus with a professional attitude that it has not been able to attain in the past. Only then would there be a tiny chance of the team from the capital making the step up into high level European soccer. [email protected]