The relatively slender shoulders of Eran Zahavi carry the hopes of Maccabi Tel Aviv as it looks to take one final step on Tuesday and realize its Champions League dream.
Maccabi hosts FC Basel in the second leg of the playoffs at Bloomfield Stadium, knowing a win or draws by a 0-0 or 1-1 score-line will send it through to the prestigious group stage after last week’s first leg in Switzerland ended in a 2-2 tie.
A stunning Zahavi equalizer in the sixth minute of stoppage time gave Maccabi a precious draw, leaving the yellow-and-blue well placed to reach the group stage for the second time in club history and the first in 11 years.
The last Israeli team to qualify for the group stage was Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2010/11, with Maccabi Haifa the only local side to have done so twice (2002/03, 2009/10).
Zahavi took his tally in the Champions League qualifiers to six goals in four matches last week after also netting a brace in the 2-0 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic in the second leg of the third qualifying round, overturning a 2-1 defeat at home.
Zahavi has already got 11 goals from the seven matches he has started over all competitions so far this season, only failing to find the back of the net in the first leg against Plzen.
Since the birth of his twin girls earlier this summer, Zahavi seems to have made a knack of scoring in braces, not only doing so in three of four Champions League qualifiers, but also in the Israeli Super Cup and Maccabi’s Premier League opener against Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday.
Coach Slavisa Jokanovic made seven changes from the lineup which faced Basel, resting both Tal Ben-Haim’s as well as Gal Alberman among others. However, he knew all too well that he couldn’t risk leaving out the in-form Zahavi.
The midfielder rewarded him with two more goals to lead Maccabi to a 3-2 win over Sakhnin.
“I was asked how I felt and I said I was okay and the coach decided that I will play,” was how Zahavi described it.
Maccabi will likely need more heroics from Zahavi on Tuesday, with Basel still considered the favorite after playing in the Champions League group stage in four of the past five seasons, reaching the last-16 last term.
“It is a game of 180 minutes and only 90 minutes have passed,” said Maccabi sports director Jordi Cruyff. “I think Basel showed why they are the favorites. We just fought with everything we got and got an amazing result in the end. Their results from recent years don’t lie and I still think they are the favorites. The moment we think we are the favorites is the moment we will lose 100 percent.”
Basel knocked Maccabi out of both the Champions League playoffs and Europa League round of 32 in 2013/14, winning at home and drawing in Tel Aviv.
Maccabi registered just five shots throughout the entire first leg last week, with Zahavi scoring against the run of play in the 31st minute.
Matias Delgado (39) equalized from the penalty spot and Breel Embolo (88) handed the hosts a dramatic lead, only for Maccabi’s superstar to steal the show.
Maccabi is already guaranteed around NIS 20 million even should it be sent packing in the playoffs as the losers are all handed an automatic berth to the Europa League group stage. However, progress to the Champions League group stage is set to be worth over NIS 50 million, from UEFA prize money alone.
“Maccabi Tel Aviv needs to play an amazing and fantastic game to beat Basel,” added Cruyff. “You can see the positive side that we got a good result in the first leg, and you can see the negative side that we played five times against Basel and never won. Arrogance is our biggest enemy and we need to fight like animals and hope that the stars align in our favor.”