Analysis: Haifa should be encouraged by Van Gaal's praise

Analysis Haifa should b

Louis Van Gaal is a coaching legend. In a career which has so far spanned 18 years, the 58-year-old has won both the UEFA Cup and Champions League at Ajax, claimed a pair of La Liga titles as the Barcelona coach and spent three years coaching the Dutch national team. So when Van Gaal, who replaced Jupp Heynckes as Bayern Munich coach in the summer, spent about half of Tuesday's post-match press conference praising the quality of Maccabi Haifa and its coach Elisha Levy, it was worth taking note. Munich had exploded into life in the last 25 minutes of Maccabi's return to the Champions League group stage, sweeping away its opponent 3-0. But rather than sitting back and reflecting on a job well done, Van Gaal appeared relieved at how his team had gotten away without conceding a goal. "I'm very pleased with the result. I think our first half was the best we've played this season," Van Gaal told reporters about the first 45 minutes which ended 0-0 and included few chances. "We beat a very good team and I'm happy," he continued. "Haifa is an excellent team which plays good soccer. In the first 15 minutes of the second half they could have scored but luckily for us they missed and we went on to score." After lavishing praise on Maccabi's style of play, Van Gaal went on to talk about Levy, saying: "You can tell Haifa is a well-coached team. I was especially impressed with the left-back [Peter Masilela] and the forward [Yaniv Katan]." Was Van Gaal simply being nice to his defeated opponent after a convincing win? In the lead-up to the game there was an overiding assumption that Maccabi had practically no chance of either defeating Bayern or qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time. Considering Van Gaal's comments, was this assessment mistaken, despite seeing Haifa lose 3-0 on matchday one? Indeed, Haifa began nervously but slowly began to stamp its mark on the game, creating a number of good opportunities, nearly all on the counter attack. The Israeli team was clearly inspired by holding Bayern goalless at half time and came out pumped in the second half. It was telling, however, that the team in green was unable to take advantage of the chances it made, especially in the first quarter of an hour of the second period, as Van Gaal noted. The man most guilty of this was captain Yaniv Katan. The 28-year-old has a rich resume of European experience and is one of the survivors of the 2002 Maccabi Haifa team which beat Manchester United in the group stage. But on Wednesday morning a number of media analysts wrote about his lack of cutting edge at the highest level, and with good reason. Katan was by far the best Haifa player on the field on Tuesday, but whenever he made some space for himself in the final third he just wasn't able to make it count. On one occasion he blasted the ball over the bar after a defensive mix up, on another he went on a Lionel Messi-style run only to end it with a weak left footed shot. Much of this must have come down to nerves. The Haifa players knew they were playing against a team which last year came second in the Bundesliga and was only knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals by eventual winners Barcelona. A team which had disposed of Borussia Dortmund 5-1 away from home on Saturday. Unfortunately, the Israeli league is not the best preparation for playing in the best club competition in the world. It will take more than wins over Hapoel Acre, Hapoel Ra'anana and Hapoel Ramat Gan for Haifa's squad and coaching staff to transform themselves into the right frame of mind to start picking up points in the Champions League. The level of concentration needed in games at European level is so much higher, with teams pressuring their opponents from the first minute to the last. But the positive views of a man like Van Gaal should act as encouragement to the young team from the north. "Of course we are disappointed," Katan said on Tuesday night, displaying his hunger to improve. "We created some good chances but at this level you can't miss those chances." Levy has built a side with formidable character and attacking strength and none of its opponents should take it lightly. On September 30 Maccabi travels to French champion Bordeaux, which held Juventus to a 1-1 draw in the other Group A game on Tuesday. Katan and his teammates have two weeks and a league game against fellow European representative Hapoel Tel Aviv to prepare for the clash in France. Only then, in the heated atmosphere of the Stade Chaban-Delmas, will we find out how much they have learned from Tuesday night's experience. Allon Sinai contributed to this report.