Hapoel Be’er Sheva made history on Wednesday night when it beat Greek champion Olympiacos 1-0 and qualified for the Champions League play-offs. It is now just one tie away from the lucrative group stages, and will find out its play-off opponent on Friday afternoon.
Turner Stadium was packed, with fans scrambling for tickets to see the Israeli underdog against the Greek powerhouse. The victory was all the more impressive given that the odds were heavily stacked against the Israeli side, which had tied 0-0 in Piraeus last week.
Manager Barak Bakhar began the game with three central defenders – the same formation that had frustrated the Greeks in the first leg. But in the 27th minute, he realized that not only was he limiting his side’s offense, with defensive midfielder Ovidiu Hoban playing at the back, but the 3-5-2 was giving Olympiacos’ Diogo Figueiras too much space on the wing.
So it was back to Be’er Sheva’s classic 4-3-3 formation. After a high quality but punchless first half from the hosts, the second 45 minutes was much better. In the 56th minute, Tony Nwakaeme made a fool of the Greek defense but, having engineered a one-on-one with the Greek keeper, his finish was weak and Olympiacos escaped.
Fortunately for Be’er Sheva, Shir Tzedek showed his teammates how to do it. In the 79th minute, Maharan Radi managed to find him with a wonderful pass on the left of the penalty area. The defender, unfazed, advanced a yard and, from just inside the box, lashed a strong, accurate shot into the far corner, beyond the helpless keeper. 1-0 to the Israeli champion.
The Greeks pressed until the end of the game, knowing a goal would see them advance on the away-goals rule. However, they didn’t really threaten Dudu Goresh’s goal. In fact, Hapoel had a chance to double its lead in the 89th minute, when the Brazilian Lucio, making his debut appearance, found himself one-on-one with the Greek goalkeeper. Like Nwakaeme before him, though, he was unable to find the back of the net.
Bakhar was understandably delighted by the historic victory. “It’s not only that we went through, it’s how we did it,” he said. “The crowd backed us in a crazy way. We knew they’d be under pressure and saw we were in better physical shape. We believed from the start that we could get a good result against them.”
“The goal is a bonus,” said Tzedek, the hero of the evening. “It was amazing work from the whole team. We should get credit for canceling out an excellent side. We were ready, our defense was very good.”
The play-off draw takes place Friday at 1P.M. local time. Hapoel Be’er Sheva isn’t seeded and will face one of the following teams: Viktoria Plzen, Apoel Nicosia, Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic or Legia Warsaw. The first legs will be played on August 16/17, with the return games taking place the following week.
If Hapoel wins its play-off tie, it will qualify for the Champions League group stage. If it loses, it will go into the Europa League group. It has already won 2 million euros (8.5 million shekels) thanks to Wednesday’s victory.