After being written off as title contenders Jerusalem's win at Netanya is significant.
By JEREMY LAST
It took Maccabi Netanya coach Lothar Matthaus nearly an hour before he finally emerged from the dressing room after Monday's home defeat to Betar Jerusalem at The Box stadium to address the waiting Israeli press.
Betar coach Reuven Atar, however, practically skipped into the small media room behind the VIP section just a few minutes after the final whistle, eager to speak to the reporters who in the preceeding days and weeks had been so quick to write off his team's chances of capturng a third successive league title.
A change of what could turn out to be immense proportions occured in Netanya on Monday when Jerusalem came back from a goal down at half time to win 2-1 and overpower the team many have got down as a favorite to win the championship in May next year.
Suddenly Netanya turned from the title hopeful which beat Maccabi Haifa into the small also ran which hasn't won the league for 25 years.
And Betar immediately grew in stature and looked like the confident, exciting side which took no prisoners on the way to winning the league in 2006 and 2007.
"We were much better [than Netanya] in the second half and we also played well in the first half. But in the second half we worked better," Atar said.
"Of course we want to go back to first place. we have the players and the ability to."
Since losing 5-0 at Wisla Krakow in a Champions League qualifier back in August and the subsequent sacking of coach Itzhak Schum there has been a strange atmosphere surrounding the Betar team which has lost the sense of invincibility which drove it to the top.
This was not helped on Wednesday morning when Betar Jerusalem owner Arkadi Gaydamak gave a puzzling interview to Ma'ariv where he said he felt the players weren't trying hard enough, he did not care about the team's fans or the team itself and was considering changing its name to "Betar Gaydamak".
The interview sent ripples through the club and after the game veteran defender Arik Benado told how the players had spoken to each other on the bus on the way to Netanya about the need to prove that they are not the team of yesteryear but real challengers.
For most of the first half Betar was well off the pace, not looking like a side which could take its chances and was deservedly losing at half time after Ravid Gazal penalty.
The defense was all over the place, with captain David Amsalem giving away the penalty and right back Cristian Alvarez failing to clear the ball properly. And the attackers, including Barak Itzhaki, looked like they were never going to score, fumbling one chance after another.
In contrast, Netanya was an organized and well disciplined team, with Luis Marin anchoring a good defensive display and Itai Schechter again causing problems up front.
The change came at half time. The Jerusalem players came out with a far greater sense of purpose and within 15 minutes had taken a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
As he spoke to the journalists Matthaus was clearly disappointed and admitted he had been unable to inspire his players to get over the pressure which had grown on the team since the win over Haifa last week.
"A couple of times we had the luck on our side and we can not only wait for the luck. We didn't concentrate, we were not in the right positions, we were not close to each other. We trained for all of this this week so I was a little bit angry... Between the 50th and 55th minute we weren't concerntrated and organized and we gave away two goals. It was crazy. Not only the goals, we gave them many balls without pressure. I don't know why," said the coach who had been lauded as a master tactician the week before.
"We didn't play like a champion. Maybe all these headlines, all this speaking makes the players nervous but I told them: 'Don't read the newspaper, don't read the television, just concentrate on the game.' I can be concentrated because I can not speak Hebrew and can not read the newspaper but I saw some players before the game who were very nervous and I told my second coach before the game that I didn't have a good feeling."
Gazal took the loss far less heavily. "You don't take the championship in the first round of games. We didn't play well today. I feel disappointed, its never nice to lose. Betar always have good players but I'm thinking about Maccabi Netanya not about other teams," he said.
But whatever anyone says, Monday's game showed that this championship race is far from over and there could well be many more twists and turns in the coming months.
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