Maccabi Haifa poised to challenge Maccabi TA as local soccer powerhouse

The fans may have hoped that their club would have pulled off a miracle, just like the team did back in 1998 but this wasn’t 1998.

By JOSHUA HALICKMAN
August 9, 2019 00:09
4 minute read.
Maccabi Haifa poised to challenge Maccabi TA as local soccer powerhouse

EVEN IN its Europa League defeat to Strasbourg, Maccabi Haifa displayed solid form that should make it a power to be reckoned with this year in Israel soccer. (photo credit: MAOR ELKASLASI)

Maccabi Haifa staff folded up the press-board and awning following the club’s post-match press conference in what seemed to be record time, as quickly as the Greens wrapped up their Europa League campaign this season.

Marco Balbul’s squad had a cup of coffee in continental play as it got by Mura before succumbing to Strasbourg last week at Sammy Ofer Stadium.

The fans may have hoped that their club would have pulled off a miracle, just like the team did back in 1998 when Yossi Benayoun and Alon Mizrachi led the Greens over Paris Saint-Germain in their two-legged tie that was played at Parc des Princes and Kiryat Eliezer.

But this wasn’t 1998 and it wasn’t PSG but Strasbourg, which is one of six French sides to have won all three available titles in the country but also a team that had languished in the lower divisions between 2011 and 2017 after going bankrupt.

However, there is optimism in the Haifa camp and rightfully so.

Take away the red card handed to Eyad Habshi in the first leg and maybe, even probably, the Greens make it past the Ligue 1 side. Balbul should be pleased with his players’ performance over the two legs – from its character to its effort, Haifa seemed to be the better team for most of the match.

Certainly Haifa is still under construction, with many holes still needing to be filled, but all in all the squad that took to the pitch last Thursday night could have easily disposed of Maccabi Tel Aviv, which itself fell to Cluj earlier in the week in Champions League qualifying play.

The Greens’ players were fresh, young and exciting as last season’s second-place league finisher looked like a team that could challenge the yellow-and-blue for the 2019/20 Israeli title. To top it off, impressively only one foreigner was in the starting lineup with just two on the bench.

If Haifa had some quality foreigners that would have played, it likely would have advanced to the third round and that’s a pity.

But let’s not cry over spilled milk. The experience gained by Maxim Plakushchenko, Yarden Shua, Mohammed Awad and Yuval Ashkenazi, among others, could go a long way this coming season.

Balbul will almost definitely bring in at least two foreign players, which he said will be done patiently and not just to bring someone in for the sake of bringing someone in. That’s the right way to build a squad. His players are hungry and ready to succeed, something which was as clear as day against Strasbourg, especially in coming back after giving up an early goal.

The 52-year-old former Israel defender also received some pleasant surprises from Rami Gershon, Allyson dos Santos and Ofir Arad. The three central defenders played not only extremely well on the defensive side of the game, but Arad assisted on Shua’s goal while Dos Santos had a brilliant assist to Nikita Rukvytsa, with the Brazilian lofting a ball over what seemed like a million Strasbourg players right to the naturalized Israeli, who slammed the ball home. A instant-classic goal by a classic striker.

The coach is well aware of the fact that his players need to play with the same verve they displayed in Europe in the league as well and made that point to the media following the clash. He praised his players’ character as being worthy of Maccabi Haifa and maintained that many of them can help the Greens for years to come.

The other outstanding moment of the Strasbourg match was when Haifa ’keeper Guy Haimov made three absolutely incredible saves in about three seconds. Bang, Bang, Bang.

There have been recent doubts about the Greens’ shot-stopper, but the job is really his to lose after the club sent Omri Glazer to Ness Ziona and brought in untested American Josh Cohen to be his backup. Haimov certainly had a part in giving up the early goal, but he kept Haifa in the game. Stopping Ludovic Ajorque, Youssouf Fofana and Alexander Djiku from point-blank range not only was heroic, but it seemed to have also raised his level of confidence when he needed it most.

Haimov understood that not advancing was a bit of a missed opportunity, but the 33-year-old also praised the fans for cheering the club on throughout the 90+ minutes as well as singing an impassioned Hatikvah prior to the game.

Fight and heart were two other attributes the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth product pointed out as being keys to what he feels can be taken from the two legs against Strasbourg into its play the local league.

Should the terrific “European Football Night” that was witnessed at Sammy Ofer Stadium between Maccabi Haifa and Strasbourg carry over into the season, there should be plenty of optimism surrounding the northerners.

The Greens seemed to have found their form three weeks before the 2019/20 campaign begins and they will only get better. The rest of the teams have been put on notice.

Thanks to the resurgence of Maccabi Haifa, there likely won’t be another title race that ends in March, but one that will be fought long and hard through May. Let the games begin.

Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi via email at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.


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