(photo credit: INIMAGE)
The disappointment of the past two seasons in the Champions League qualifiers is still fresh in the minds of many of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players.
The yellow-and-blue has thoroughly dominated the local scene over the past three years, but is determined to make amends for its failures in continental soccer’s premier club competition in 2015/16, starting with Tuesday’s second qualifying round first leg at Maltese champion Hibernians.
Maccabi is a firm favorite to overcome Hibernians, which hasn’t won a game in European competition since 2002. However, it will need to overcome two more home-and-away ties in order to attain its true goal, reaching the group stage of the Champions League for the second time in club history and the first since the 2004/05 season.
Maccabi may already face the likes of Celtic, FC Basel or APOEL Nicosia in the third qualifying round, where it faltered in each of the previous two seasons.
Despite claiming its third straight Premier League championship last season and becoming the first side to claim the domestic treble, Maccabi changed its coach yet again, replacing Pako Ayestaran with Serbian coach Slavisa Jokanovic.
“In theory we are the favorites, but we have to show our best on the field of play,” Jokanovic said.
“You may be surprised as to what you will see as this will be the first official game. I believe we are ready for this match and of course I understand that Maccabi has great ambitions in Europe for this coming season.”
Maccabi has so far only signed one new player, bringing back defender Tal Ben-Haim after 11 years in Europe. Jokanovic hasn’t hidden his displeasure with the club’s lack of activity on the transfer market and sports director Jordi Cruyff seems intent on adding to the squad after allowing midfielder Maharan Radi to leave for Hapoel Beersheba over the weekend.
“I understood the situation to release Radi as we want to improve and needed to find something more guaranteed in that position. But like in every club, some players come in and some go out,” Jokanovic said.
“We will need to take some serious steps in the next two weeks to upgrade the squad. We knew what we needed already a few weeks ago and it would be better if we had these players already in training camp. We have a serious situation in front of us, but we will deal with it over the next few matches.”
Maccabi’s top scorer in the past two seasons, Eran Zahavi, will not start on Tuesday, but Jokanovic said he may be available to come on as a substitute if necessary.
“We are still not 100 percent sure if Eran Zahavi will play or not, as he still has some small muscle problems and we don’t want to take a risk playing him,” the Serbian said. “Zahavi will probably start from the bench and I will keep the option open to play him later in the match should we need him. He should be fully fit in the near future.”
While Maccabi may have not significantly strengthened the squad this summer, it has crucially managed to retain last season’s core, handing the likes of Zahavi and winger Tal Ben-Haim lucrative contract extensions.
“I had a number of offers from outside of Israel, but I chose what I felt most comfortable with. I enjoy being with Maccabi and of course the players, and I would like to stay here for the long term,” said Ben-Haim. “We all want to head into the group stage of the Champions League, but we will have to defeat very tough teams along the way.”