Soccer / Mercurial Midfielder May Hold the Key to Hapoel TA Victory

If not for Nemanja Vucicevic's arrogant behavior, Hapoel Tel Aviv's Serbian midfielder might still be playing for FC Koln in the Bundesliga. Last summer, having completed his two-year contract at the German club, he shocked the club's management by demanding one and a half million euros a year to stay on.

"Our leading players don't make that kind of money," club officials told Vucicevic, and showed him the door. During his last few months in Germany he lost his place on the first team due to injury, then struggled to reestablish himself in the squad. According to local media, he "acted like Ronaldo, only he couldn't play like Ronaldo." According to one German journalist, "He walked around as if next year he'd be at Manchester United. People in Koln didn't like this behavior."

After looking for a new club for several months, one day a phone call came from Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Eli Guttman. Guttman had heard about his technical ability and thought he could fit in with Hapoel's plans. Vucicevic, 30, eventually settled for $200,000 a year and joined Hapoel.

It didn't take long for Guttman to realize that his new acquisition has rare virtuoso abilities; he just hopes the midfielder will not repeat the inconsistency that dogged his career in Germany.

Vucicevic likely wants to erase the year 2005 from his memory. He began his Bundesliga career with Munich 1860, and saw himself living his boyhood dreams ever since his childhood in Belgrade. But a routine drug test revealed banned substances in his bloodstream. Despite his protests that the source of the illicit material was an anti-balding drug and that he was unaware of any misdemeanor, the German soccer authorities banned him for six months.

After three years at Munich, Koln's manager, Michael Meier, signed the mercurial talent. "He's a player with outstanding abilities," said Meier at the time, "but he suffers from ups and downs. If not, he would have gone far as a soccer player. He can play two games at the highest of levels, then disappear for five matches."

Hapoel Tel Aviv picked up the player immediately after qualifying for the Europa League group stage. Under Guttman, Vucicevic is getting what he wants: a regular place on the team. In his debut for the club against Hapoel Be'er Sheva, he scored a goal of rare beauty. That was before the first game with Celtic, when he scored in a memorable 2-1 victory. Tonight he will hope to replicate that performance. Let's just hope he doesn't disappear.

Within reach

A victory over Celtic tonight will guarantee Hapoel Tel Aviv a ticket to the next round, and the group's top slot is assured if Hamburg fails to beat Vienna. A draw or even a loss could still mean that Hapoel will advance if Hamburg does not lose at home this evening.

If the Austrian club does upset the Germans, Hapoel will need a point against Hamburg in the last round of games, or for Vienna to fail to beat Celtic.