In a way, Maccabi Tel Aviv has only its own success to blame.
The standard Israel’s top soccer club has set itself over recent years was bound to eventually backfire. After winning two consecutive Premier League championships, claiming a third in a row is simply not good enough.
Maccabi fans are no longer content with just winning. They want style, flair and excitement. And when they don’t duly arrive, they let the team know in a not-so-subtle manner.
Coach Pako Ayestaran felt the full brunt of their displeasure on Monday, and not for the first time this season, when the supporters voiced their frustrations by adding a soundtrack of deafening boos to his substitutions.
On the face of it, Maccabi supporters are either out of their mind or unbelievably spoiled. Maccabi may be the most illustrious club in Israeli soccer history, but it went 10 years without a championship until the 2012/13 campaign.
After Spaniard coach Oscar Garcia ended the drought, Paulo Sousa of Portugal guided Maccabi to a second straight league title last year.
Oscar returned last summer, but left before the league campaign even began. Maccabi’s press release put Oscar’s departure down to the security situation at the time.
However, he had a different version of events, claiming that he did not leave because he was afraid for his safety, but rather because the rocket fire from Gaza had disrupted his job to such an extent that he no longer felt he could achieve success with Maccabi.
The 51-year-old Pako has vast experience, serving as an assistant coach at Valencia (2009-2010, 2001-2004), Benfica (2008-2009), Liverpool (2004- 2007) and Tenerife (2000-2001), the majority of the time under manager Rafa Benitez.
However, he came in with only two years of experience as a head coach at Mexican second division side Estudiantes Tecos.
The timing of Oscar’s departure left sporting director Jordi Cruyff with few options and Pako’s résumé seemed to indicate he would be more than adequate for the position.
It is hard to argue with the results so far, especially considering the fact Ayestaran inherited a squad he didn’t build and didn’t have the opportunity of guiding through the pre-season.
Maccabi enters the championship playoffs with a five-point margin over Hapoel Beersheba at the top of the standings after beating Hapoel Petah Tikva 2-0 at Bloomfield Stadium on Monday.
The yellow-and-blue had won only one of its previous five matches, but extended its unbeaten home record this season and remains a firm favorite to go on and lift the league title once more.
Unlike the previous two seasons, Maccabi has also made a run in the State Cup, reaching the semifinals for the first time since 2005 where it will play Ahi Nazareth of the National League next month.
The yellow-and-blue has also already claimed the Toto Cup, meaning it is well placed to go on and become the first team in Israeli soccer history to complete a local treble.
Nevertheless, Pako regularly hears calls for his resignation from the stands and he struggled to explain why he has become such an unpopular figure on Monday.
“It is not under my control,” said Pako. “I want to be appreciated first by my staff, secondly by my players and third by the club. I’d like to be loved by the supporters, but if I cannot be, what can I do? Next time maybe we will have to give papers to the crowd and they will tell me who to substitute. I’ve got my own ideas and I will go to the end with my ideas.”
The Spaniard went on to give a brief explanation of his philosophy.
“Maybe I understand the game in another way, but I’m really pleased,” he said. “For me football is about not conceding and creating chances and be dominant and control the game.
“In the first 25 minutes of the first half and the last 25 minutes of the second half we controlled the game. I prefer to control the game and keep the opposition far from my goal than play with many strikers and lose control of the game.”
Pako clearly has the support of his players.
“I think the fans’ job is to support the team and they do that well,” said star midfielder Eran Zahavi, who scored his 21st league goal of the season against Petah Tikva.
“Obviously, they don’t always like certain coaching decisions, but the coach understands the game better than the fans. They expect us to put on a show, and that could have been the case had we converted our chances.”
While Tel Aviv fans clearly have it good, there is some basis to their complaints when comparing the team’s record this season to the previous two years.
In 2012/13, Maccabi had 59 points at this stage of the season, winning 19 of 26 matches and losing five times. The side scored 61 goals while conceding 20 and held a 10-point gap over second- place Maccabi Haifa.
Last season, the team scored three fewer goals, but also allowed two less and amassed 66 points, winning 21 of 26 matches while suffering only two defeats to build a seven-point lead over Beersheba.
Under Pako, Maccabi has collected just 54 points, winning only 17 of 26 matches while losing four games.
It is worth noting that Maccabi was deducted a point for the derby debacle against Hapoel last November and could have had four more points had it won that match. Nevertheless, it would have still come up short compared to the past two campaigns, with the side’s current goal difference of 53-20 also inferior to that of recent seasons.
But as things currently stand, it is impossible to claim Pako hasn’t led Maccabi to the requisite results.
The Spaniard took to Twitter on Tuesday in an attempt to pacify the supporters, writing: “Thanks! I know Maccabi has great supporters. I’ll give my all for the club under any circumstances. Maccabi more important than Pako!” A lot will happen over the final two months of the season and Pako’s tenure could still be crowned as a resounding success or a colossal failure.
Either way, it seems unlikely the fans will be won over, leaving Pako’s future at the club in a very precarious position.[email protected]