The Last Word: Just how far can the old cliche go?

Grant is beginning to prove his early critics wrong, with Chelsea not only winning but playing quality soccer. It's time for the Israeli teams to replicate that style of success.

jeremy last new 298.88 (photo credit: Jeremy Last)
jeremy last new 298.88
(photo credit: Jeremy Last)
When Betar Jerusalem won its first league game since the end of October 1-0 on Sunday night, stretching its lead at the top of the Israeli Premier League to five points, supporters around the capital and beyond breathed a sigh of relief. But this sigh was tainted by the poor quality of play throughout most of the 94 minutes at "The Box" in Netanya. The players of both Betar and its host, Maccabi Netanya, exasperated the 6,000 fans in the stadium, as well as tens of thousands suffering through the game on television at home, with their wasteful passes and thoughtless attacks. At one point the commentator on Channel 10, who continuously questioned the thinking behind many of the players' passes, asked his co-commentator how the teams could be playing so badly. "Well, this is only Israeli soccer," was the reply. But despite the dire performance, in many fans' eyes a win is three points gained, whatever the circumstances. For there is an old soccer cliché that analysts have used to describe situations at clubs from Manchester United to Juventus. It states, simply, that the sign of a successful team is when it wins even when playing badly. The idea is that every team goes through some rough patches, but a winning mentality can grind out results and proves the resolve and determination of the players and management to crawl toward the finish line. A league campaign is, of course, a marathon, not a sprint. This is, to an extent, fair enough - when the team plays exciting and skillful soccer for the majority of the season. Fans can excuse the players for having an off day or two. But Israeli soccer supporters should expect more than the drivel they were served up on Sunday and should begin to be concerned. It is one thing for a team to play badly in a few of its games, but since defeating Ashdod SC 5-0 back in October, Betar has yet to impress. Playing badly and winning really is more of an excuse than a sign of greatness. It should not be acceptable for the league champion, especially one that has had so much money plugged into it, to play so badly. One comforting thought would be to look back to a year ago and realize that however bad it is now, it was so much worse then. Betar managed to win the 2006/07 league title by playing appallingly unimaginative soccer in nearly all of its 33 league games. This season the introduction of Itzhak Schum as coach has brought some more confident and creative play. Until recently, Chilean right back Cristian Alvarez, forward Barak Itzhaki and even Michael Zandberg in midfield were all important parts of a side that was often playing some delightfully innovative soccer. But since the 0-0 draw at Haifa a few weeks ago, the standards have been slipping. Itzhaki has lost his confidence, Alvarez has lost his sense of purpose going forward and Zandberg has returned to his wasteful old self. The one shining light has been the return to form of Brazilian striker Romulo, who took his goal well on Sunday and was unlucky to not have scored a couple more. The yellow-and-black may be top of the league and heading toward a second consecutive title, but the management must give the squad a kick up the backside and encourage some cleverer play. It was a problem Jose Mourinho suffered at Chelsea. His team may have lost a few games, but it was the style of soccer that most concerned Roman Abramovich. We have now seen he was right to replace the Portuguese legend with our own Avraham Grant. How many Betar fans must be wishing the Jerusalem club's owner, Arkadi Gaydamak, had tried even harder last summer when he held meetings with Grant in an attempt to make him coach of Betar. Grant is beginning to prove his early critics wrong, with Chelsea not only winning but playing quality soccer. It's time for the Israeli teams to replicate that style of success.