Hapoel Be’er Sheva
Saints will travel 3,000 odd miles to face Hapoel Be’er Sheva. The club are based just outside of Jerusalem and have found a resurgence in recent years after financial trouble. They were founded in 1949 and they are regarded as one of Israel’s top and biggest clubs. Like Saints, Hapoel were relegated to a lower division during the 2004/05 season. In 2007 Hapoel were purchased by Israeli businesswomen Alona Barket. Four years after Barket took over, they were promoted back into the Israeli Premier division.
They have won three Israeli Premier Division titles including last season, completing a complete renaissance for the club under the guidance of Barket. By winning the league title during the 2015/16 season, this ended a 40-year drought for the league title. As a result, the club competed in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League for the first time in the clubs history this summer. Hapoel narrowly missed out on a group stage place after losing to Celtic 5-4 on aggregate.
The man in charge at the Israeli champions is Barak Bakhar. Bakhar lead Hapoel to their league title last season and also lead the club to Israeli super cup. As a player, he never ventured out of the Israeli leagues, playing for Hakoah Ramat Gan, Hapoel Petah Tikva and Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
The key danger man for Hapoel is Nigerian forward Tony Nwakaeme. Last season he averaged 1.2 goals per game, as he scored 11 goals in the 9 games he featured in. He’s now 27 and possesses pace in abundance so will no doubt look to challenge our backline to a foot race.
There is a growing stigma around the Europa League that the competition can do more harm than good for clubs like Southampton. I don’t believe this to be the case and I especially think that we could thrive under the prospect of playing European football. The main concern many have with clubs like us playing in the Europa League is that our league form will suffer due to the fixture congestion and travelling miles around Europe. In some cases this is correct, for example, if you look at Everton and Swansea, this competition definitely effected league form. But Swansea qualified for the competition due to winning the League cup and not league position. If you take a look at our squad compared to theirs at the time, with all due respect to Swansea, our squad is much better on paper.
Overall, I think the club will prosper due to the extra money being pumped into the club via live broadcasting of our games. The club will also gain more exposure and this will only be a positive in growing the club abroad – something that Ralph Krueger is passionate in achieving. This European campaign for me is all about the fans. In the week we play our first game at home to Sparta Prague, seven years prior Saints beat Yeovil at home 2-0 in League 1. By placing our faith in the squad we have earned a place in the Europa League as much as the club.