Commentary: Maccabi Tel Aviv basks in group stage glory

Momentous victory nets NIS 80 million windfall; Zahavi & Co. to find out opponents in today’s draw.

Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Eran Zahavi (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Eran Zahavi
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The possibilities are intriguing and daunting.
Barcelona, Manchester City and Roma. Or perhaps Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Lyon.
Or maybe Juventus, Arsenal and Sevilla.
There are numerous mouthwatering prospects for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw in Monaco.
Since eliminating FC Basel in the playoffs on Tuesday, advancing on away goals by registering a 1-1 draw at Bloomfield Stadium on the back of a 2-2 tie in Switzerland, the three-time reigning Israeli champion has been in dreamland.
The yellow-and-blue will be in seeding Pot 4 on Thursday and is set to be drawn with some of European soccer’s biggest names.
Maccabi will face one team from each pot, apart from Pot 4, with Pot 1 consisting of: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus, Benfica, Paris-Saint Germain, Zenit Saint Petersburg and PSV Eindhoven.
The likes of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, should it have secured its progress on Wednesday night, could be among Tel Aviv’s opponents from Pot 2. Roma, Sevilla and Olympique Lyon may be placed with Maccabi from Pot 3.
Regardless of the draw, Maccabi will enter the group stage as a massive underdog, although it may have an outside chance of doing some damage with a draw that would place it in a group with PSV, Porto and Greek champion Olympiacos.
Maccabi’s only previous appearance in the group stage was in the 2004/05 season, with the last Israeli team to qualify for the group stage being Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2010/11.
This is the fifth time an Israeli team will play in the group stage, with Maccabi Haifa doing so twice (2002/03, 2009/10).
Tel Aviv has guaranteed itself a massive payday worth over NIS 80 million, NIS 54 million from UEFA prize money alone, with the club set to make around another NIS 30 million from ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising.
Maccabi will also generate extra income by hosting its matches at Haifa’s Sammy Ofer Stadium, which seats 30,000 fans compared to just over 13,000 at Bloomfield.
Every point in the group stage will also be extremely valuable, with each win to be worth another 1.5 million euro from UEFA and a draw 500,000 euro.
“We have realized the dream,” said Eran Zahavi, who led the team to the group stage almost single-handedly, netting a brace in the first leg in Basel, including a 96th-minute equalizer, while also scoring twice 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 from the first leg.
“We never stopped fighting.
There were minutes that we suffered, but we enjoyed suffering for one another.”
Sports director Jordi Cruyff was also over the moon.
“I’m extremely proud,” he said. “If you told me this three years ago I wouldn’t believe this is possible. It is a miracle because we never gambled by spending stupid money on players. Now we are with the big boys and it is going to be a tough ride.”
It was just six weeks ago that Maccabi opened its Champions League qualifiers with a 2-1 defeat to Hibernians in Malta, and coach Slavisa Jokanovic acknowledged how far his team has come in such a short time.
“We had many problems in the beginning of the season. In football you must improve and we improved in a short time,” said Jokanovic. “Some great European teams are going to arrive. If you never play at this level you never have the chance to try and beat these teams, but now we have that chance.”
In related news, Maccabi announced the signing of Croatian forward Dejan Radonjic on a one-year loan deal from Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday, with the israeli club holding an option to make the move permanent at the end of the season.