It is a juncture every successful club ultimately faces.
The moment it realizes it is no longer the best.
Instead of being the team to beat, it finds itself back in the position of the challenger, wondering where it all went wrong.
That transformation is especially difficult for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Being No. 1 is ingrained in the DNA of the yellow-and-blue, and after three seasons of utter domination in Israel, getting used to being second best is not an easy process.
Maccabi can open a six-point gap over reigning champion Hapoel Beersheba should it defeat Bnei Sakhnin on Wednesday night in a league match brought forward due to its participation in the Europa League.
But wresting its place back atop local soccer is not dependent on any single win or a temporary cushion in the standings.
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One of the indications that Beersheba has surpassed Maccabi is the fact it has become the No. 1 landing spot for Israeli talent.
For so long, players avoided Beersheba due to its geographic location, hostile crowd and bleak prospects, but that has all changed since owner Alona Barkat took over the club.
Beersheba’s title triumph last season combined with its new stadium and the general feel-good atmosphere around the club have made it the place to be in local soccer in 2016.
“Hapoel Beersheba is the No. 1 club in Israel right now,” said 20-year-old rising star Michael Ohana after joining from Ashdod SC in the last day of the transfer window for a fee of NIS 4.5 million.
“It is a big challenge for me to fight for my place on the team with the best players in Israel. It is the dream of every child to play on a team like this.”
Maccabi is still clearly one of the top two clubs in the country, and one could argue that despite failing to claim a title last season remains the standard-setter.
Despite its capitulation against Zenit Saint Petersburg in their Europa League group stage opener last Thursday, conceding four late goals in 15 minutes to lose 4-3 after leading 3-0, Maccabi has proved its pedigree just by reaching the group stage of a continental competition for a second straight year, playing in the Champions League last season.
It also flexed its financial muscles this summer, breaking its previous record for the most expensive transfer in Israeli soccer history by paying Swedish side Malmo FF around 3.5 million euro for the services of Icelandic striker Vidar Orn Kjartansson.
Maccabi undoubtedly remains one of the leading forces in the local game, and that will never change as long as Canadian-Jewish billionaire Mitch Goldhar is the owner.
But the fact sports director Jordi Cruyff felt the need to castigate the players in a team meeting last Friday following the humbling loss to Zenit, and that its content was leaked to the media either by the players or by a club official, shows that the yellowand- blue has no intent of accepting the current situation.
“There are players here who lack basic commitment and I will not accept that,” said Cruyff according to one report.
He added that he is willing to take much of the heat for the players, but that he is “unwilling to accept” what happened against Zenit. “If I feel this is continuing I won’t have any problem releasing 20 players in the next transfer window and at the end of the season,” he threatened. “What has happened here over recent months is not in the DNA of Maccabi Tel Aviv. I will make any change I feel necessary.”
Cruyff, who has been at Maccabi since the summer of 2012, held a rare press conference at the end of the transfer window earlier this month and revealed some of his thought process.
“We don’t look at other teams but we look at what Maccabi can do,” he said. “I don’t think we reacted to last season, when we were close to everything but were left empty handed. It’s a difficult feeling, but if you asked me to sign a ten-year contract on what we did last year I would.”
With superstar Eran Zahavi leaving for China, and the likes of Israelis Tomer Hemed and Moanes Dabbur unwilling to return to Israel from their European clubs, Cruyff said he shifted his focus on the transfer market.
“We had to try and bring the best players to Maccabi and we somewhat changed our strategy. Instead of bringing in Israeli players we looked at foreigners as the Israelis were all taken up,” noted Cruyff. “I’m never happy or satisfied with the job I’m doing and I’m always looking to improve."
“There are certainly some things that I could’ve done better and some things that I’m completely satisfied with. The owner, myself and the coach are all on the same page.”
The former Barcelona and Manchester United player was rumored to be looking to leave the club earlier this summer following the death of his father Johan in March of this year.
“It’s always important to make evaluations and sometimes we all need a new and fresh challenge,” he said.
“Four years has been a long process, and there were ups and downs. At some point I’ll need something new as will the club and that’s just normal. On a personal level, it was a rough six months as well. I’m not working in the Cruyff Foundation because it has many capable people and I’ll be staying in the football realm for a long time.”
Maccabi has made enormous strides since Goldhar took over the club seven years ago. It went 10 years without the league title before winning the championship in 2012/13, but is now unwilling to accept finishing in second place even once.
That compulsion to be the best, and having all it needs to do so thanks to Goldhar, means Beersheba will never be able to rest on its laurels.
Getting used to its new position in Israeli soccer is not easy for Maccabi Tel Aviv, but the sooner the team’s players acknowledge the challenge they face in the same way the ownership and management have done, the greater their chances will be to return to what they see as their rightful place at the summit of Israeli soccer.
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