Having had to battle to preserve their top-flight status just two and a half years ago, Hapoel Tel Aviv have since enjoyed a remarkable turnaround under the steady hand of Eli Gutman. Winners of the Israeli league and cup double last term, qualification for the UEFA Champions League group phase for the very first time has given the respected coach the opportunity to extend the club's domestic success on to the European stage.
“When I started here [in 2007/08], Hapoel were in danger of dropping down a division, but in my second year we finished runners-up in the league," Gutman told FIFA.com. "This past season we won the double and now we’re in the Champions League alongside teams like Lyon and Schalke. We’ve made fantastic progress, but we’re still a long way from reaching our full potential.”
The Israeli outfit, one of six newcomers in this season’s Champions League group stage, face a daunting opening test in the shape of Group B rivals Benfica at the Estadio da Luz on Tuesday. Yet despite the aforementioned Lyon and Schalke, also established forces in European football, completing the section, Gutman is by no means overawed.
“I see Lyon as group favourites, but we’re certainly in with a chance of holding our own against Schalke and Benfica," he said. "We’re aiming to put together the best campaign possible, which for us would mean finishing second or third in the group.”
This may be just the start of Hapoel’s journey in the continent’s biggest club competition, but Gutman’s charges did pick up valuable experience in last season’s UEFA Europa League. Indeed, the club emerged from a group containing Hamburg, Celtic and Rapid Vienna before bowing out to Russian champions Rubin Kazan in the Round of 32. “That international experience was a big step forward for our team,” said the 52-year-old. “And it’ll definitely do us good in the Champions League.”
For the ambitious coach, one of the key factors behind these recent successes is the club’s unity. This is perhaps aided by the presence of just four foreign players in the Hapoel squad, with Israeli clubs only permitted a maximum of five. “I don’t pay much attention to nationality but foreign players often take time to adapt and to learn a new language," he explained. "So I try to find local players if I can, but if not I’ll look elsewhere.
“I’ve instilled my footballing philosophy into my players,” continued Gutman, whose four foreigners are Nigeria keeper and designated penalty-taker Vincent Enyeama, Brazilian defender Douglas, South African centre-back Bevan Fransman and French midfielder Romain Rocchi. “It’s always important to keep the success of the team in mind, and that’s something we’ve been able to manage well here at Hapoel. We’ve now got excellent players who are capable of competing at the very highest level.”
Preparation the key
This determination to compete for honours was epitomised by the manner in which Hapoel won the 2009/10 Israeli Premier League crown, having gone into the final round of matches two points behind leaders Maccabi Haifa. With the latter held 1-1 by Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv, the Red Demons looked set to fall short after going down to ten men on 29 minutes against Beitar Jerusalem and surrendering an early lead. That was until a decisive injury-time strike from Eran Zehavi, a goal which clinched a 2-1 victory and the club’s second league and cup double.
“We want to win all our games and we set out our stall with that aim in mind. But even I was surprised at just how well we played last season,” said Gutman, whose team are making a habit of surpassing expectations, be it by winning a 13th league title or qualifying for the Champions League group phase with a 4-3 aggregate victory over play-off rivals Red Bull Salzburg.
“I prepare my teams for situations like that and I tell the players how to react in any possible situation. Who can tell what challenges await us? That’s why we’ve got to be ready for anything.”