Beitar Jerusalem midfielder Omer Atzili.
(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Jordi Cruyff begins life as the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv when the yellow- and-blue opens its 2017/18 Europa League campaign on Thursday night, while Beitar Jerusalem also hopes to take a first step towards the group stage.
Cruyff stepped down from his role as sports director after five years to become the yellow-and-blue’s new coach two weeks ago. His debut will be anything but glamorous, with Maccabi aiming to open a significant lead over KF Tirana when it hosts the Albanian second division side in Netanya in the first leg of the Europa League first qualifying round.
Tirana, which is competing in Europe by virtue of its local cup triumph last season, isn’t meant to pose much of a threat to the yellow-and-blue, which is looking to come through four home-and-away qualifying ties on the way to the group stage of the competition for a second straight campaign.
Awaiting Maccabi in the second round is the winner of the tie between SJK Seinajoki of Finland and KR Reykjavik of Iceland.
“It’s the first game after a very complicated type of preparation,” said Cruyff on Wednesday. “It’s very difficult that the players have hardly had any time to recover from last season.”
Cruyff revealed that the decision that he would take over as coach was already made last month in a discussion with owner Mitch Goldhar following the defeat to Bnei Yehuda in the State Cup final.
“We talked about the last years and where we are now and where we want to go and felt it is the right thing for both sides,” explained Cruyff. “I was sports director for five years. It’s a long time. Longer than I expected when I came. We felt this was the right moment to go in this direction. We just felt that after five years we were both comfortable with it and we went for it. It is hard to explain exactly why sometimes these things happen. But it has happened and we are going to give it everything.”
Despite failing to win a title in the past two seasons, Cruyff believes Maccabi shouldn’t be judged solely on silverware.
“I understand that at the end we work for titles, but I don’t think you analyze everything on titles,” he said. “I think the main thing, and what I like in teams, is the intensity of the players. To see the real desire to win games. That is what I’d like to bring. That is the first thing we need, to recover the hunger to go back to where we have to be.”
While Maccabi hopes to reach the group stage for a third straight year, Beitar Jerusalem is aiming to do so for the first time in club history after losing in the final playoff round last season. Yossi Benayoun could make his debut for Beitar when it hosts Hungary’s Vasas in the first leg of the first qualifying round in front of empty stands in Petah Tikva, being punished by UEFA for the unruly behavior of its supporters. Vasas finished in third place in the Hungarian league last season.
The winner of the tie will next face either Partizani of Albania or Botev Plovdiv of Bulgaria.
“We are very excited to be starting the new season,” said coach Sharon Mimer. “We are hoping to build on last season’s success.”