Maccabi Tel Aviv enters next week’s final Champions League group match against Dynamo Kiev with nothing to play for. At least on paper.
With five defeats from five matches, and a combined 1-15 goal difference, the three-time defending Israeli champion already knows it will end Group G in last place.
However, there will be plenty of pride on the line for the yellow-and-blue in freezing Kiev next Tuesday.
Another defeat will not only leave Maccabi on zero points at the end of the group stage, but will also cap arguably the worst ever performance by an Israeli team in the competition.
Eran Zahavi’s penalty in the 75th minute of the 3-1 loss to Porto at Haifa Stadium last month ensured the 2009/10 Maccabi Haifa will remain the only side in the history of the competition to end the group stage without picking up a point or scoring a goal.
Nearly five years had elapsed since an Israeli team last scored in the group stage, with Zahavi also netting that goal for Hapoel Tel Aviv in the 2-2 draw at Lyon on December 7, 2010.
Maccabi is the fifth Israeli side to reach the Champions League group stage, with Maccabi Haifa (2009/10), Hapoel Tel Aviv (2010/11) and Maccabi in 2004/05, as well as this season, all losing their first three games. Only the 2002/03 Maccabi Haifa collected points in any of its first three contests.
However, apart from Haifa six years ago, the other Israeli teams all registered a significant improvement in the second half of their campaigns.
After losing its first three matches by a combined goal difference of 2-8, the 2010/11 Hapoel went unbeaten and ultimately finished with five points, registering a goalless deadlock against Schalke 04, beating Benfica 3-0 and drawing 2-2 at Lyon.
The 2004/05 Maccabi Tel Aviv failed to find the back of the net while conceding five goals in its first three group contests.
But it would go on to beat Ajax 2-1 and draw 1-1 against Juventus, finishing tied with the Dutch giant on four points.
While this season’s Maccabi will avoid joining the 2009/10 Haifa regardless of next week’s result, its campaign may well be remembered just as bitterly as that of the Greens.
While Haifa failed to find the back of the net, it gave its opponents a real run for their money, losing by a 1-0 scoreline on five occasions.
Haifa could count itself unlucky at not picking up points against Bayern Munich, Juventus and Bordeaux, something which can’t be said about this season’s Maccabi.
In fact, Maccabi is lucky to have a goal to its name, with Greek referee Tasos Sidiropoulos awarding Tel Aviv a dubious penalty against Porto which Zahavi duly converted.
Maccabi has shown improvement with every match, but it has nevertheless been outplayed in all five of its games to date. It hasn’t even managed to enter halftime in any of the matches without trailing by at least one goal.
Haifa of six seasons ago, on the other hand, held its opponents to goalless deadlocks in the first half of four of six games.
“Yes I have seen improvement,” said Maccabi coach Slavisa Jokanovic following last week’s 4-0 defeat to Chelsea. “If you’ve seen our first game we’ve improved. It’s a tough competition. We need to invest, but our market is very tight with only five foreign players. To be more competitive we will need to do more.
“I expect Maccabi Tel Aviv will play better next season in the competition as this is the first year back after 11 years. I’m very proud even though we lost 4-0 as we showed a lot of character and effort.”
Maccabi sporting director Jordi Cruyff said the team’s Champions League experience “opened his eyes” regarding the magnitude of the gaps between Israeli soccer and Europe’s best.
“I think the lesson that I, as well as the players, need to take from our performance in the Champions League is that if we want to play here we need to improve,” said Cruyff. “The Champions League campaign opened the eyes of all the players, as well as mine, that if we want to be there we need to adapt. This is a positive lesson we should take from this experience.”
Cruyff also believes Maccabi is hindered by the five-foreigner limit for each squad, although when assessing the 13 foreign players he has signed since joining the club over three years ago, it is quite clear that quality rather than quantity is Maccabi’s biggest problem.
Dejan Radonjic, Mane, Steve Gohouri, Remi Mareval, Robert Earnshaw and Gonzalo Garcia all failed to impress at the club, to say the least.
The jury is still out regarding new goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, who joined Maccabi in the most expensive deal in Israeli soccer history in August, while Juan Pablo, Nikola Mitrovic and Nosa Igiebor have all been a reasonable success.
Cruyff’s best signings have been three previously proven commodities, Vincent Enyeama, Carlos Garcia and Rade Prica.
“I’m not saying that the foreign player is better than the Israeli player. I will never say that,” noted Cruyff. “We took three championships due to the fact that we had the best Israeli players and we reached the Champions League thanks to our Israeli players. I believe that if you train every day with people with a different mentality and education you will acquire more knowledge that will result in a better ability.”
One can hardly blame Cruyff for looking for any possible way on which to improve on this season’s disastrous campaign.
He has become the face of Maccabi to many soccer fans abroad and the team’s results also reflect badly on him.
While Israeli teams will clearly have a better chance of succeeding in Europe should they invest heavily on countless foreign recruits, the fact of the matter is that local sides did a lot better in the Champions League in the past even with the current limitations.
The gaps between Israel’s best and Europe’s top sides is continuing to grow and that should be giving plenty of food for thought not only for Maccabi, but for local soccer as a firstname.lastname@example.org