Maccabi Tel Aviv , Israel’s most decorated side arrive in Dublin to face Dundalk hoping to get their Europa League campaign back on track after a shocking collapse at home to Zenit in the last round that saw them concede 4 goals in the last 13 minutes to end up losing 4-3. Maccabi currently sit top of the Ligat Ha’al with 13 points from five matches buoyed by a 3-0 win away at Bnei Saknin on Wednesday night, before flying to Dublin they are scheduled to play cross city rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv on Sunday in the local version of El Classico, nothing other than a victory will suffice and it is expected over a Hapoel side who are in serious decline both on and off the field since their last league title in 2009.
Maccabi have won 3 out of the last 4 Israeli championships, after a dip in form from the mid 2000’s, the arrival of Jordi Cruyff as director of football in 2012 saw a dramatic turn in fortunes, Cruyff brought in ex Barcelona player Oscar Garcia a head coach, Garcia was working at the time with Johann Cruyff as coach of the Catalonia national team, this was a new departure for Maccabi who in the previous 65 years had only one non Israeli at the helm. Under Cruyff and Garcia’s guidance coupled with financial clout of Mitch Goldhar of Canadian Walmart fame, Maccabi stormed to their first title in 10 years in May 2013.
Success continued unabated for the next 2 seasons, Cruyff remained at the helm, Martin Bain joined the club from Rangers as chief executive in June 2014 and under the coaching of Pako Ayestaran who people remember as Rafa Benitez’s assistant at Liverpool, (he was fired last week at Valencia by the way) Maccabi went on to win a domestic treble securing qualification for the 2015-2016 champions’ league group stages with a fine victory over Basel in the final qualifying round.
Last season however has been described as the worst of the Cruyff era with Maccabi finishing trophy-less, their foray into the champion’s league was disastrous losing all 6 games against Chelsea, Dynamo Kiev and Porto ending up with a goal difference of minus fifteen. Slavia Jokanovic joined as coach from Watford in July 2015 but left mid-season to be replaced by the now current Ajax coach Peter Bosz. Maccabi lost the league on the final day to Hapoel Be’er Sheva , Bosz went back to Holland and then they lost the cup final in Jerusalem 3 days later to Maccabi Haifa.
A chaotic playoff game last April at the business end of the season in the predominantly Israeli Arab city of Saknin where Maccabi drew 0-0 with the locals handing the advantage to Be’er Sheva personified Maccabi’s instability as they fell apart in a game played in a charged atmosphere.
Eran Zahavi described it to the media afterwards as like “being in Ramallah” and goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovoc and forward Tal Ben Chaim were involved in scuffles with Saknin coaching staff as Maccabi seemed to collapse on an off the pitch.
Whilst emotions do run high in Israeli society at times and often it spills onto the terraces its usually the travails of clubs with a strong political fanbase such as Beitar Jerusalem or Hapoel Tel Aviv that garner most attention. To see players from Maccabi involved in such a scenario is not something that one is accustomed to, least of all Jordi Cruyff. Maccabi never recovered from dropping two vital points that night and a resurgent Be’er Sheva pipped them for the title by beating the same opposition on the final day.
To make matters worse star forward Eran Zahavi who scored 35 goals in 36 league games left the club after the cup final for Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super league for a fee believed to be in the region of 10 million euro much to the despair of the club’s fan base.
Zahavi the former Hapoel Tel Aviv and Palermo attacker and captain of the Israeli national side was Maccabi’s talisman through the Cruyff era and to leave the club at the peak of his powers at only 29 years of age was a blow to Maccabi .however they were not in a position to compete with the 12 million USD Zahavai is set to earn over the course of a lucrative two year contract
Season 2015 – 2016 has started better domestically with Maccabi top after 5 games, Shota Arvaladze joined the club as new head coach from Trabzonspor in what was a strange appointment given that he was sacked two months into the job at the Turkish side on the back of poor results. Arvaladze is Maccabi’s seventh coach in 4 years, the managerial merry go round in israel is similar to our own in the league of ireland where you have a core group of local journeymen taking the reigns on season long contracts, under Jordi’s management Maccabi abandoned the local policy to hire only foreign coaches , however none saw out more of a season for various reasons.
Yossi Benayoun joined from Haifa and Maccabi have made a solid start, they progressed to the Europa league group stages taking the scenic route through Eastern Europe by defeating ND Gorica of Slovenia, Kairat Almaty from Kazakstan, Panduri from Romania before getting the better of Hadjuk Split on penalties in the final qualifying round. Benayoun is at the helm of everything Maccabi do and along with Tal Ben Chaim who scored a wonderful goal for Israel against Italy in September provide a very good attacking threat. Maccabi’s two summer foreign attacking acquisitions Ezequiel Scarrione from Kasimpasa in Turkey and Icelandic international Vidar Kjartansson from Malmo are getting amongst the goals also and were on the score sheet in Saknin last Wednesday.
It is Maccabi’s defence tho that is brittle, Serbian international goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic does not inspire confidence as those who watched our qualifier in Belgrade three weeks ago will testify, whilst a goalkeeper with excellent reflexes he tends to parry the ball into dangerous positions and is very suspect defending crosses, Maccabi’s back four is marshalled by the ageless Tal Ben Haim, Ben Haim has played for a staggering nine clubs in England however he has looked clumsier than usual of late and the calamity that he oversaw against Zenit with his collegaues Igor Filipenko and Omri ben Harush will not have gone unnoticed by Stephen Kenny I am sure . Maccabi will not like Daryl Horgan’s pace and they certainly won’t like Dundalk’s threat from set plays. The Israeli domestic league is your typical style of football you’d associate with south Eastern Europe with slow build up from the back, the ball played on the ground and a lack of physicality. In Israel most teams with the exception of Be’er Sheva wont attack Maccabi, instead they will sit back and allow Maccabi play on their terms, it is key that Dundalk take the game to Maccabi on Wednesday and put them out of their comfort zone, Horgan’s pace coupled with plenty of balls in on top of Rajkovic will cause unease.
Maccabi play good football and will attack on Thursday night and will line up in a 4-3-3, captain Gal Alberaman and the excellent Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin do the hard work in the engine room allowing Benayoun’s trickery to create openings for Ben Chaim and Scarrione. this is a team that played exceptionally well for seventy minutes against Zenit and given time on the ball they will cause Dundalk serious problems.
Maccabi will expect to beat Dundalk, football people in Israel are familiar though with the perils of underestimating Irish teams after Shamrock Rovers beat Bnei Yehuda in 2010, however this is Maccabi Tel Aviv, this is different, it’s football royalty and they will expect to win this game
In Israel you have the big four clubs, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem that attract support from different elements of the population based on various political, social or locational factors, after Ironi Kiryat Shmona a club from the small town near the Lebanese border shocked Israeli football by winning the league in 2012 the old order was well and truly restored a year later with Maccabi’s subsequent hat trick of titles, Be’er Sheva have now burst on the scene, the night Maccabi were embarrassing themselves in Netanya against Zenit , Hapoel Be’er Sheva under the guidance of their brilliant female owner Alona Barkat were beating Inter Milan 2-0 in the San Siro, Maccabi know that loosing against Dundalk is not an option.
Beating Saknin 3-0 last Wednesday has gone some little way to help eliminating last season’s blues and restoring some pride, if Maccabi beat Hapoel on Sunday night as all known form says they should then they will go in to Thursday’s game on a high, anything other than a win against Hapoel could see a vulnerable side arriving in Tallaght with Arvaladze knowing his job could be hanging by a thread if they dont leave Tallaght with three points.