Fieldwork: Benado’s benefits

Nobody could have predicted the success of former youth team coach Arik Benado at the helm of Maccabi Haifa.

Haifa soccer team (photo credit: Uzi Gal)
Haifa soccer team
(photo credit: Uzi Gal)
Confidence is a fickle beast, especially among sportspeople.
It was less than six weeks ago that Maccabi Haifa’s players barely seemed capable of connecting two passes.
The team’s position in the Premier League standings reflected that, with the Greens occupying 13th place out of 14, nine matches into the season.
A season that was supposed to be the perfect start to a fairy tale turned into a pure nightmare, with coach Reuven Atar guiding his boyhood club to a sole victory in nine games, picking up a meager total of seven points. Atar had been welcomed by the adoring fans as the Messiah in the summer but was sent packing less than three months into the season.
After unsuccessfully courting Ran Ben- Shimon, who led Ironi Kiryat Shmona to the championship last season and currently guides AEK Larnaca in Cyprus, Haifa owner Jacob Shahar elected to promote Arik Benado from the youth team. After all, why not give Benado his chance instead of bringing in an expensive recruit, considering that Haifa’s hopes of reclaiming the league title were already seemingly all but over at that stage, trailing first-placed Maccabi Tel Aviv by 14 points? Shahar has earned a reputation as the best owner Israeli soccer has seen in his 30 years at Haifa, but surely not even he could have predicted what was to unfold following Benado’s appointment. Haifa is unbeaten in seven league matches under Benado’s guidance, winning five times and keeping six clean-sheets.
Crucially, Haifa players are looking confident once more. While the Greens have impressed only sporadically, they are playing with renewed desire and vigor and, just as importantly, seem to believe in themselves again.
Haifa has been the dominant force in Israeli soccer since 2000, winning seven championships over the past 12 seasons, including two in the past four years under the guidance of Elisha Levy.
However, that didn’t stop the club’s fans from fantasizing about the day when Atar would return, and he replaced Levy in the summer.
Under Atar, Haifa recorded its worst start to a campaign, but Shahar repeatedly squelched any notion that the coach might be sacked, laughing off any such suggestion and promising that Atar would keep his job at least until the end of the season.
Shahar’s words and track record surely reassured Atar, with the boss not having fired a coach mid-season since Eli Cohen was sacked in 2000. However, even Shahar ultimately lost patience, and with Atar refusing to throw in the towel, he sacked him on November 13, following a draw at Hapoel Ramat Hasharon.
The most notable change since Benado took charge has been to the team’s defensive play. That should hardly come as a surprise when one considers Benado’s resumé.
Much like Atar, Benado is one of Haifa’s all-time greatest players, establishing his place with the senior team in the 1993/94 season. Unlike the virtuoso Atar, however, Benado made his name as a defensive anchor. He recorded a total of 399 appearances for the Greens until his retirement in 2011 and spent two stints with Beitar Jerusalem (1994-96 and 2006- 10).
The 39-year-old ended his career as the all-time leader in Premier League appearances (565) and still holds the record for most matches played for the Israel national team (94). He also has nine championships and three State Cups to his name.
However, despite his illustrious playing career, he has almost no experience as a coach and inherited a floundering squad.
But it was perhaps Benado’s relative youth that allowed him to connect with the players on a personal level after they had lost touch with Atar.
After keeping just two clean-sheets in its first nine matches under Atar, Haifa has conceded just a single goal in seven games with Benado. Despite working with the same personnel, Benado has the squad playing at a completely different commitment level. Nevertheless, Haifa continues to struggle on the offensive end, with its 16 league goals in as many matches to date – the fourth-worst total in the league.
Benado’s men scored just two goals in three matches before Saturday’s 2-0 win over Hapoel Beersheba, which was far from straightforward, with Weeam Amasha and Shlomi Azulai not finding the back of the net until the 69th and 72nd minutes, respectively. The win took Haifa up to sixth place, a significant but bridgeable 10 points from Maccabi Tel Aviv in first.
“We didn’t play well in the first half, but we showed we can play good and attractive soccer in the second half,” Benado said in a post-match interview.
“Our defensive play continues to look good, but we need to be more dominant.”
Saturday also provided another prime example of the dramatic difference between Benado and Atar’s time at the club. In what proved to be his final match at the helm, Atar decided to drop captain Yaniv Katan from the squad, resulting in an uproar among fans and angering owner Shahar, who had not been notified of the decision in advance.
Katan started in the next six matches under Benado, but the coach chose to send him to the bench for the encounter against Beersheba. This time, however, the decision went almost unnoticed and was not even questioned by Katan, who made a point of displaying his discontent with Atar last time around.
“I wasn’t surprised I came on as a substitute,” a smiling Katan said on Saturday.
“I think that shows we have a healthy squad. It is important to rotate the starting lineup. This is completely different from the last time I was dropped. We are in a different place, and I accept everything with love and understanding.”
What a difference six weeks can make.