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Things looked bad for Club Brugge at the start of the summer. With Ivan Perisic joining Dortmund and Ronald Vargas wanting a money spinning move to Anderlecht, Adrie Koster needed to rebuild. The board obliged with several big name signings aided by their vast European scouting network. Lior Rafaelov (or Refaelov as it says on the shirt for some reason) has shone in Israel, can the midfielder make the cut in Belgium? Michael Yokhin tells us more…
When talking to Lior Rafaelov prior to his signing, Club Brugge coach Adrie Koster explained that he is supposed to replace their biggest star, Ivan Perisic who was sold to Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund for €5 million. At first Brugge were ready to pay about €1.5 million for the Israeli international, but some shrewd negotiations by Maccabi Haifa president Jacob Shachar increased the offer to €2.5 million. That means the Belgians have spent half the sum earned on the Croatian in order to bring their new midfield star, and they should expect him to be at least half as good. Is that possible? Rafaelov’s history shows that could be a very dangerous gamble.
There is little doubt the 25-year-old is a very gifted player. A great dribbler, he can be brilliant with the ball at his feet. Rafaelov is quick, never afraid to impose himself on the game, and has a decent eye for goal as well. He was elected Israeli Player of the Season in 2010/11, scoring 11 goals that helped Haifa to win the league title in style. That was his best season so far, and Rafaelov also enjoyed good relationship with national team coach, the famous Luis Fernandez. The attacking midfielder thanked the Frenchman, as well as Haifa coach Elisha Levy, for his good form, saying: “They gave me confidence and helped me become a better player. I hope to continue this progress at Brugge”.
However, even at his peak, Rafaelov is often criticized for somewhat selfish play. Fans who dislike him point out that the number of assists he provides is minimal, and that is a vital piece of statistics when talking about an attacking midfielder. Lior is no youngster – he spent 7 seasons in Haifa’s senior team, and most of them were unsuccessful due to his poor attitude. His previous coach, Roni Levy, now at Steaua Bucharest, even wanted to release him from the team, after losing patience with Rafaelov’s constant breach of discipline. “Some are more interested in getting a new tattoo than getting into shape” he said, but Shachar came to the rescue and vetoed the proposed sale.
Coming late for training sessions became Rafaelov’s trademark in his early years at Haifa, and he was once ordered to take the whole team to dinner to make up for his behaviour. When substituted in Champions League qualifiers against Aktobe in Kazakhstan two years ago, he made such a fuss about it, that many pundits believed Elisha Levy will not easily forget him. However, the coach proved to be a good motivator, and eventually Rafaelov did produce his long overdue “breakthrough season”. How long will it last? Does he believe he is a huge superstar already just because a European team paid some extraordinary money to get his services, while signing him to a lucrative contract? Nobody knows the answer, and Koster will be very wise not to take anything for granted.
Brugge will undoubtedly hope Rafaelov will be successful at least like Elyaniv Barda at Genk, by far the best Israeli export to Belgium. As far as mentality is concerned, however, Rafaelov is much more similar to Barak Itzhaki, the immensely talented player who was a complete failure at the very same team, before becoming homesick and returning to his country after just 6 months. It would be extremely harsh on Lior to predict him to follow this route, but he must work very hard on himself if he is to make Brugge fans forget Perisic’s impact.