When Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv qualified for the Champions League group stage in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010, it seemed like Israeli soccer had effectively cemented its place on the biggest stage Europe has to offer.
However, that success is beginning to look like an anomaly after Maccabi Tel Aviv failed to even make it through to the playoff round of qualification for a second straight year on Tuesday.
Even should the next Israeli champion reach the groups next season, it will have been five years since Hapoel Tel Aviv became the last local side to do so.
That would equal the longest group-stage drought for Israeli clubs since Maccabi Haifa became the first local team to qualify for the Champions League groups 12 years ago.
Maccabi Tel Aviv truly believed that this would be its year.
The yellow-and-blue maintained the core of the squad that dominated the Israeli Premier League over the past two seasons and also signed Israel national team striker Eden Ben-Basat and Nigerian midfielder Nosa Igiebor ahead of the third qualifying round tie against Slovenian champion NK Maribor.
Unlike last season when it lost to the superior FC Basel in the third qualifying round, Maccabi was seeded in this year’s draw and was favored to overcome Maribor.
However, the yellow-and-blue squandered its opportunities in the first leg in Slovenia before conceding a soft goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time on the way to a 1-0 defeat.
Oscar Garcia’s team was wasteful in front of goal and erratic on defense yet again on Tuesday, ultimately drawing 2-2 in Larnaca, Cyprus.
There is little doubt that the rocket fire towards Tel Aviv over recent weeks and the fact the team was forced to host its home leg in Cyprus significantly hurt its chances.
However, coach Oscar admitted that his team should have nevertheless found a way to progress, although he did stress that not qualifying for the group stage cannot be regarded as a failure considering Maccabi has only done so once in its history in the 2004/05 season.
“We couldn’t convert our chances and that was the difference. We made unusual mistakes and that killed the game,” he said. “We want to be a big club in Europe but we are not a big club in Europe. We are a big club in Israel and we want to progress.”
Sporting directer Jordi Cruyff couldn’t hide his disappointment, but insisted there is still plenty for the club to look forward to this season.
“It is a shame that we were knocked out with a feeling that we could have done better,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for everyone at Maccabi to get both feet back on the ground, keep working hard and continue pulling in the right direction. We felt like we had an excellent chance to do it, but circumstances both on the pitch and off it didn’t really help us.
“At times like this we need to remain united and work towards our next target - the Europa League group stage.”
Maccabi will find out on Friday who it faces in the Europa League playoffs, with the first leg to be played on August 21 and the second leg to take place a week later.
Maccabi reached the group stage and went on to advance to the Round-of-32 of the Europa League last season. Ben-Basat is hoping the team can bounce back and embark on a similarly long continental campaign this term.
“One part of the European season is over, but we still have plenty to play for,” he said. “Maccabi is a club which should always play in Europe.”
Meanwhile, Ironi Kiryat Shmona will be looking to join Maccabi in the playoff draw when it hosts Dinamo Moscow in Nicosia, Cyprus, in the second leg of the Europa League third qualifying round on Thursday.
Kiryat Shmona recorded a surprise 1-1 draw against the Russian powerhouse in the first leg in Moscow and is hoping to complete the upset against its illustrious opponent, which signed France midfielder Mathieu Valbuena from Olympique de Marseille for a fee in the region of seven million euros earlier this week.
“Dinamo Moscow is a superb team, but we were ready in the first leg,” said Kiryat Shmona coach Barak Bachar. “We won’t have fans supporting us in Cyprus, but we won’t use anything as an excuse.”