Hapoel Beer Sheva pose serious threat to Celtic's Euro ambition

Elyaniv Barda and Barak Bakhar
Hapoel manager Barak Bakhar (right) will not have striker Elyaniv Barda (left) available against Celtic
Champions League play-off: Celtic v Hapoel Beer Sheva
Date: Wednesday, 17 August Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB; live text commentary on BBC Sport website

Barak Bakhar will not be a name familiar to Scottish football's fervent followers. At least not yet.

Bakhar leads his Hapoel Beer Sheva side to Celtic Park on Wednesday for the first leg of their play-off tie with the sole intention of dragging the unheralded club into their first ever Champions League group stage.

It is not something he is just hoping to do - he expects to. And that does not appear to be beyond the popular 36-year-old from Haifa.

While Claudio Ranieri was making global headlines for his odds-defying English Premier League coronation with Leicester City, Bakhar was doing something similar in Israel.

Like Leicester, Beer Sheva are not part of the 'big four' quartet that is made up of powerhouse clubs Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem.

Ben Sahar
Ben Sahar could lead Hapoel's attack in Glasgow

Yet they emerged top of the pile, two points clear of Hapoel Tel Aviv, who remain the most decorated club in the country.

It was their first championship in 40 years and it shook Israeli football to its core.

This was no accident either.

Rock solid

An incredible 29-match unbeaten escapade in the league - which included 15 clean sheets - was the best in Europe at the time, outlasting the 23 that Barcelona notched up on their way to the Spanish title.

Hapoel have yet to lose a league match at the new stadium they flitted into last September and conceded more than one goal just six times in the 49 matches they contested in all competition throughout 2015-16.

Celtic have not had their troubles to seek in European qualifiers in recent seasons and it's fair to speculate that this tie looks to be more challenging than their doomed assignments against Maribor and Malmo in the last two years.

Nir Bitton and Nikola Djurdjic
Celtic lost to Malmo in last season's Champions League play-off

The upturn in fortune of the club, humiliated 10-0 at Dutch side Roda in a European Cup Winners' Cup tie at the turn of the century, is not difficult to trace.

Alona Barket's takeover went against the grain of football in the Middle East, a woman assuming a position of power at one of Israel's top football institutions.

And she has not been slow to make ruthless decisions in order to get Hapoel to where they now find themselves, on the cusp of more history.

It took a few years of hard work and hurdle jumping, but she has propelled Hapoel from the second tier, to champions, to potential Champions League material on the fifth highest budget in Israeli football.

Think Ross County or St Johnstone doing similar in the Scottish Premiership.

Tough nut to crack

Ominously for Celtic, 'The Crazy Reds' have already started making waves this season by eliminating Champions League mainstays Olympiakos from the competition with an impressive 1-0 aggregate victory.

That's the same Olympiakos who won the Greek Super League by 28 points last season and who have performed in the group stage in each of the past five seasons.

It was a success that was fully merited.

They added to last season's title by defeating Maccabi Haifi in the Israeli Supercup and have qualified for the knock-out stage of the League Cup.

Bakhar laid the foundations upon his arrival with the signings of dangerous Nigerian striker Anthony Nwakaeme and former Chelsea graduate under Parkhead boss Brendan Rodgers, Ben Sahar, who scored 22 goals between them last season. The former was particularly difficult to deal with for a beleaguered Olympiakos.

Shir Tzedek and Mario Mandzukic
Israel defender Shir Tzedek (left) scored Hapoel's winner against Olympiakos

With captain, crowd favourite and last season's top scorer Elyaniv Barda injured, Sahar or Brazilian Lucio Maranhao will likely be called upon.

Portuguese defender Miguel Vitor - who was on the Benfica bench when they visited Celtic Park in the 2012 group stage - is also struggling to be fit and his loss would be as big a blow to the visitors at the back as Barda's will be up front.

However, Hapoel Beer Sheva's whole is greater than the sum of their parts and hungry Israel internationals pepper their squad, with defender Shir Tzedek - who scored the decisive goal against the Greeks - and winger Maor Melikson important cogs in Bakhar's well-oiled machine.

With an almost impregnable home in Israel's dusty city alongside a worryingly bad Celtic European record away from home, a solid first-leg advantage will be Rodgers' aim against as problematic an opponent as they could have pulled from the hat.

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