Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Barak Itzhaki (10) celebrates with his teammates.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv is closing in on becoming the first Israeli team to claim the local treble, but the future of coach Pako Ayestaran remains shrouded in doubt.
The 3-1 win over Hapoel Beersheba at Bloomfield Stadium on Monday night opened an eight-point gap at the top of the Premier League standings with just eight matches to play in the season.
While there are still 24 points left to play for, the yellow-and-blue looks to be well on course to clinch a third straight league title, something only Maccabi Haifa (2004-06) has achieved in the past 52 years. The yellow-and-blue has also already won the Toto Cup, local soccer’s second cup competition, defeating Maccabi Haifa in the final earlier this season.
Maccabi will face Ahi Nazareth of the National League in the State Cup semifinals in three weeks, with Beersheba to play against Hapoel Afula of the second division in the other semi.
Assuming Maccabi maintains its current gap it will have already clinched the league title by the time the cup final will be played on May 20, meaning it could officially secure the treble by lifting the cup for the first time since 2005.
However, despite what seems like resounding success, there remain many question marks as to Maccabi’s plans for the head coaching position next season.
The Spaniard, who has faced stiff criticism from the local press for much of the season, has also carefully evaded any questions regarding his future with Maccabi.
“At the moment I’m really pleased at Maccabi,” Pako said after Monday’s impressive win over Beersheba. “I’m enjoying my time here and the future for me is next week’s match against Kiryat Shmona and nothing beyond that.”
Pako insisted he doesn’t take the criticism to heart.
“I don’t need to answer my critics,” he added. “I know who I am and I know what I’m worth. I can’t take seriously criticism which comes from people who haven’t even seen my training sessions.
Therefore, I don’t care what they are saying about me. I try not to bother myself with what people are saying about me and to remain focused on my job.”
Pako was also adamant that his team has no reason to celebrate just yet.
“We have seen more weird things in football and we cannot take our foot off the gas until the work is not done and finished,” he said.
“However, I’m confident that we won’t experience a collapse because I feel that we have improved over our recent matches and I’m pleased with that.”
Before a decision is made on Pako, Maccabi owner Mitch Goldhar will want to extend sports director Jordi Cruyff’s contract. The Dutchman is about to complete three years at the club, but still hasn’t seen the team qualify for the Champions League group stage, and unlike Pako, he currently seems likely to stay on.
Apart from Nigerian Nosa Igiebor, the rest of Maccabi’s foreigners (Juan Pablo, Carlos Garcia, Nikola Mitrovic and Rade Prica) will all be out of contract at the end of this season and it remains to be seen if any of them will be offered an extension.
As far as its Israeli stars go, Tal Ben- Haim looks set to leave for Europe, but Maccabi is hopeful Eran Zahavi will remain at the club.
“I’m happy here and it isn’t easy to find happy moments so let me enjoy this,” said Zahavi when asked about his future.
“Obviously, I would like to play in the Champions League with Maccabi and I will remain here until I have the urge to leave.”