The Last Word: The paradox that is Maccabi Haifa

It has been amazing to witness the downfall of the greens in the league, while the team has performed superbly in European competition.

Mac Haifa 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mac Haifa 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The situation at Maccabi Haifa this season has been no less than perplexing. It has been amazing to witness the downfall of the greens in the league, while the team has performed superbly in European competition. After the 2-1 loss to Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan over the weekend, Haifa has been left languishing in seventh place in the Premier League standings, 11 points behind leader Betar Jerusalem - not a position fans of the team in green are used to. For the last six seasons, Maccabi Haifa was no less than imperious in the league, becoming the local version of Manchester United or Glasgow Rangers at their best and winning the league five out of six times. Last season, the team's performances in Europe weren't overly impressive, but the club took the Israeli title months before the end of the season after winning the first 11 matches of the season. But this season this has been totally reversed. After putting in a superb performance to knock CSKA Moscow out of the UEFA Cup a week and a half ago, on Saturday Haifa lost another league match to another poor quality side struggling at the foot of the standings. Saturday's loss to Hakoah left the passionate Haifa fans scratching their heads for another weekend. The result came just five days before Haifa faces Spanish side Espanyol in the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup. Following the 1-0 win over Moscow, there has been massive hype ahead of Thursday's match and tickets reportedly sold out in just a few days. The fans had apparently forgiven their team for the embarrassing recent home losses to Betar Jerusalem (3-0) and Maccabi Herzliya (4-0), as well as at Bnei Yehuda (2-1) and Hapoel Tel Aviv (2-1) earlier in the season. Against Moscow, the team played some wonderfully classy, flowing soccer. At Kiryat Eliezer on Saturday, this quality was again nowhere to be seen. It was like it was a different team on the field - not much of a confidence boost ahead of the Espanyol game. It appears to be inexplicable. How can the same team play so well in European games and then seemingly fall apart in local competition? One answer could be that doing well in Europe has affected the team's performance in the local league. That the players and management have been focusing too much of their energy - both mental and physical - on the European matches, leaving form to suffer in supposedly easier games at home. This, in part, could explain the situation at Maccabi Haifa this season. Roni Levy's charges just don't seem to be able to motivate themselves to play well in the league but the excitement, professionalism and significance of Europe has given them a motivation they didn't knew they had. The UEFA Cup may be the poorer sibling of the Champions League but in the latter stages it still includes some quality sides, especially since the teams which finish third in their Champions League qualification groups transfer to the UEFA Cup. As exciting as this run has been, the situation should worry Levy. It looks increasingly likely that unless it wins the State Cup this season, Haifa won't qualify for Europe next season. Luckily, the Israeli league is of such poor quality this season that a strong run over the last 10 matches could be enough to catapult the greens up to third place. But it's a faint hope and maybe its time for the team's management to get rid of Levy and bring in a new, more experienced coach, or else risk watching the team fall apart after so many years of success.