Hapoel Be’er Sheva have already sprung one or two surprises on the European stage this season. As winners of the Israeli cup last season, the club had to take a long route through the qualifiers for the Europa League: first against Dinamo Batumi from Georgia (3-0), then away to KF Laci from Albania (2-1) followed by the Scottish side Motherwell (3-0). So far, definitely winnable games. But then came more of surprise in the play-offs with a 1-0 victory against Viktoria Pilsen, the Czech Republic league runners-up. “We are the underdogs in the group,” said coach Yossi Abukasis after the draw – and hardly anybody could really have gone against that opinion. At the end of the day, Be’er Sheva followed three league titles between 2016 and 2018 with ‘only’ a fourth-place in the Europa League and the current season interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic has not started well. For example, the next opponents of the Werkself only managed a 2-2 draw at home against the previous pointless Bnei Sachnin. Be’er Sheva are now eighth in the table with five points from four games. And yet, the Israelis have given as good as they’ve got in the Europa League against supposedly ‘bigger’ teams. In the opening match, Be’er Sheva beat Slavia Prague 3-1 and the self-proclaimed underdogs only lost 1-0 in the away game at Nice. The outcome: Hapoel are still second in the group after two matchdays.
“I’m aware of the qualities of Peter Bosz from his time in Tel Aviv,” said Be’er Sheva’s coach Yossi Abukasis after the group draw. He should know all about it. Although the current Werkself coach was only at the helm at Maccabi Tel Aviv for six months in 2016, he faced Abukasis three times as the coach of Ihud Bnei Sachnin. The record: two narrow wins for Bosz plus one draw. Abukasis has been the coach at Hapoel Be’er Sheva since January and in that time he has won the national cup competition and qualified for the Europa League – a very presentable achievement. Abukasis, former Israel assistant coach, has relied on a stable defence in the Europa League and he fielded a back five against both Slavia Prague and Nice.
There are no big names in his team and, amongst the many Israelis in the squad, central defender Loai Taha is the only current international. Be’er Sheva were very active in the transfer market in the summer when they brought in several players from abroad, which strengthens the squad in several positions: The pacey winger Elton Acolatse from the Netherlands won the game against Slavia Prague with a late brace and the Colombian striker Jhonatan Agudelo also scored a goal with the Argentinian Mariano Bareiro playing in a holding midfield role.
The focal point and star of the team is the Portuguese Josué. In a team full of players not that well-known, the midfielder is probably the most famous name. Josué came through the academy at FC Porto and has played six games in the Champions League for his hometown club, and he has also won four international caps for Portugal – playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. He also played for SC Braga and Galatasaray. The 30-year-old has been at Be’er Sheva since 2019 and in central midfield he is the key instigator, a creator – and also goalscorer: Josué scored four goals in the four qualifiers before the group stage. Together with new signing Bareiro as the enforcer plus his fellow countryman and captain Miguel Vitor (already with 28 Europa League appearances under his belt including for Benfica) as the main man in defence, Josué forms the backbone of the side.
The Israeli league was suspended for one month due to the pandemic, which means one match after the next for Be’er Sheva. After the team was unable to play a competitive match for three weeks, the game against the Werkself will be the fifth game in 14 days. And the break this time is particularly short as Hapoel were in league action on Monday night. The coach Abukasis cannot rotate too much as the squad does not have enough quality in depth to replace key performers like Josué, Miguel Vitor and Acolatse on the European stage.
Be’er Sheva have already proved this season that they are a team to be taken seriously and they can also pose problems for supposedly superior sides. Going through from the group would be a huge surprise for the underdogs but, given the opening game win against Slavia, that is not impossible. In 2016/17, the Israelis went through in the group stage of the Europa League in a no less demanding group made up of Inter Milan, Southampton and Sparta Prague. So why not this time too?
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