Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Maccabi Tel Aviv arguably has more reasons to be worried than celebrate despite advancing as expected to the Champions League third qualifying round on Tuesday night.
Maccabi beat Maltese champion Hibernians 5-1 at Bloomfield Stadium to overturn the humbling 2-1 loss in last week’s first leg and claim a 6-3 win on aggregate. However, despite the impressive scoreline, the yellowand- blue once more struggled for extended periods against a semi-professional opponent and will have to register a significant improvement by next week’s first leg against Czech champion Viktoria Plzen.
Maccabi is looking to reach the group stage for the second time in club history and the first since the 2004/05 season.
Even should Tel Aviv’s Champions League qualifying campaign end in the third round for a third straight season, it will be able to console itself with a berth in the Europa League playoffs.
Maccabi was forced to sweat until it finally overcame Hibernians on Tuesday. It still trailed on aggregate early in the second half after Brazilian Rodolfo Soares canceled out Maccabi’s fortuitous opener scored by Hibernians’s Jorginho.
However, Eran Zahavi netted from the penalty spot six minutes later in his return to the lineup after missing the first leg through injury, and goals by Tal Ben-Haim (61), Nosa Igiebor (82) and another by Zahavi (90) put the tie to bed.
“I can’t be completely satisfied,” said Maccabi’s new coach Slavisa Jokanovic. “We had many minutes with many problems. We started very nervously and made many mistakes. At the end we got the result we needed and took a step forward, but there’s a bigger step in front of us.”
With Maccabi only signing defender Tal Ben-Haim so far this summer, Jokanovic once more urged the club to strengthen the squad.
“Maccabi had decided before I arrived which players it needed in which positions,” he explained.
“They told me it is a dream for this club to play in the Champions League so now it is time to bring players because already in one week we will be playing a very important game.”
Jokanovic admitted that Maccabi has no chance of continuing to progress in the Champions League should it not dramatically improve its form.
“Overcoming Plzen is complicated for us. We must improve by 100 percent or more,” he said.
Maccabi stormed out of the gate on Tuesday, pressuring the visitors across the field. However, the yellow-and-blue struggled to translate its dominance into scoring opportunities, with Zahavi, as expected, the team’s most dangerous player.
The Premier League’s top scorer in the past two seasons hit the post from the tightest of angles in the 13th minute and had his attempt from the edge of the box denied by goalkeeper Jurgen Borg seven minutes later.
Maccabi’s frustration was growing with every passing minute, but a huge slice of luck released the pressure at Bloomfield in the 32nd minute.
Jorginho completely fluffed his clearance of Zahavi’s free kick, turning it into his own net to the delight of the local supporters.
However, Bloomfield was silenced seven minutes into the second half when Soares made the most of a confused Maccabi defense and tucked in the equalizer.
The hosts were back in front within six minutes though, with Zahavi converting from the spot after Ben-Haim was tripped in the box. Three minutes later Ben-Haim got on the score sheet after rounding the ‘keeper, but Maccabi was still living dangerously, with Andrew Cohen’s header coming off the crossbar in the 67th minute.
Igiebor finally settled Maccabi’s nerves eight minutes from time and Zahavi capped the win in the 90th minute.
“There is no such thing as an easy match in Europe, especially as we were under a bit of pressure,” said Zahavi. “Clearly we need to improve but we achieved our goal. If we are disappointed after winning a match 5-1 than we are in a good position.”