(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv faces what could prove to be one of its most important weeks of the season as it aims to regroup from one of its lowest points in recent years.
In his five years as Maccabi’s sports director, Jordi Cruyff earned legendary status at the club by being the mastermind behind one of its most successful eras. Three Premier League championships, one State Cup and progress to the Champions League group stage are only a some of the yellow-and-blue’s achievements under his stewardship.
Seven different coaches guided the team during those five years, but Cruyff provided the continuity and stability that together with the financial backing of owner Mitch Goldhar turned Maccabi into the dominant force in Israeli soccer.
Even when taking a back seat to Hapoel Beersheba in the past couple of seasons, it seemed clear that it would only be a matter of time until Maccabi bounced back.
With Cruyff choosing to step down from the front office and become a head coach on a full-time basis for the first time in his career, Maccabi looked primed to give Beersheba a real fight for the crown.
But very little has gone according to plan for Maccabi and Cruyff.
The yellow-and-blue managed to qualify for the Europa League group stage, but has completely lost its way over the past month, hitting new lows over the last week.
Maccabi was crushed 4-0 by Astana in Kazakhstan in Europa League action last Thursday, equaling its biggest margin of defeat in 25 years of European action.
“I think that this was probably our worst performance in the last five or six years,” said Cruyff, surely never imagining matters would go from bad to worse four days later.
There is obviously no shame in losing 2-1 to Hapoel Beersheba at Turner Stadium. But the fact Maccabi was outplayed on Monday despite playing with an extra man from the 21st minute and couldn’t match Beersheba’s intensity, not to mention its quality, left Cruyff having to answer serious questions regarding his future at the club, something which was unthinkable not that long ago.
“I will never be a problem for Maccabi Tel Aviv,” said Cruyff. “I love this club too much to be stubborn and to think only about myself. I’m very critical of myself and if I ever feel that it is me I will be the first one to admit this.”
Cruyff held nothing back and wasn’t shy about criticizing his players.
“You have to have pride. You have to have respect for your club, for your fans, but also for yourself. That is the first thing that we need to start with,” he said.
New CEO Ben Mansford came out on Tuesday in support of Cruyff, saying: “We aren’t going to make a knee-jerk reaction or rush.” Mansford said that “everyone knows that the last two performances are not acceptable” and that “unacceptable came out from Jordi and captain Sheran Yeini and I think that’s the right word and that can not continue.”
Maccabi has an ideal opportunity to register just its second win in the past seven matches over all competitions when it hosts rock-bottom and coachless Hapoel Acre on Sunday. The yellowand- blue could really use a comfortable victory to pick up some much-needed confidence ahead of next Thursday’s crucial Europa clash with Astana in Netanya.
Two victories could kick-start Maccabi’s campaign, but a failure to win both matches may lead Cruyff to question whether he is the right man to lift the team.
Maccabi could find itself nine points behind first place by the time it plays its next game should leader Hapoel Haifa beat Hapoel Ra’anana on Saturday.
Beitar Jerusalem, which is in second place three points back, hosts Hapoel Ashkelon. Also Saturday, Maccabi Haifa visits Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Maccabi Netanya goes to Bnei Sakhnin.
Reigning champion Beersheba, which is six points off first place with a game in hand, travels to Ashdod SC on Sunday, with Maccabi Petah Tikva and Bnei Yehuda facing off on Monday.