Soccer / Premier League

Maccabi Haifa Still Banking on Its Coach

Despite the team being mired in 10th place, Arik Benado is being given the chance to redeem himself, but does he have the tools to do so?

The day after losing 1-0 to lowly Hapoel Ra'anana, Maccabi Haifa officials dealt with the usual questions Sunday: Who is to blame for the situation? What do we do now that the team has fallen back so far?

Coach Benado convened a hasty team meeting to calm nerves on Sunday. "It was very important for him to hold a talk and show that he is in control of the situation," said a club official. "It was also important for him to send a message to the fans. It's a very tough period, but it is possible and we need to get out of it strengthened."

The coach told his players that together with them he is capable of getting the team out of the situation it has stumbled into, and even won the backing of Yaniv Katan, the team captain. Katan is also trying to calm the fans, who have started directing their frustration at the players.

The heads of the club do not absolve the players of responsibility for the situation, but even the people closest to Benado aren't hiding the fact that he made mistakes. "With all due respect to the changes that Arik is making, it can't be that he starts every game with two different defenders," said a relative of the coach. "He should decide who are the best defenders and give them backing."

Meanwhile, Benado has the backing of owner Ya'akov Shahar. The club's heads, who Sunday condemned the incident in which fans cursed former Haifa player Tamir Cohen at the end of the game against Ra'anana, would rather avoid a shake-up for now and present Benado the opportunity to fix the faults. And still, some in the team assert that Benado's future depends on the coming results. The team's goals, in any event, are far different than what were originally set.

The current demand is for Benado to get Maccabi Haifa back into the top half of the table, regardless of whether or not it will compete for the Premier League championship.

"Shahar realized long ago that there is no point in talking about the title, but he made it clear to Arik that there are other goals, like quality soccer and getting the fans to come to games," says an associate of the owner. "He wants to see players fighting on the pitch. As far as Shahar is concerned, second place is totally realistic and there are no sacred cows. You have to give a platform for the players who most want to succeed, and we have got to restore the team's honor."

Benado is supposed to restore this honor, which has recently been run into the ground, with players he did not necessarily choose. Like his predecessors, he has also been forced to live with a reality in which other officials intervene in the process of building the roster.

"There were at least two players who Arik was forced to add to the team without taking his opinion into account," asserts an associate of the coach. Benado may indeed recognize this reality and live with it in peace, but the result is the general feeling that he has yet to find the right lineup. The players as well, it turns out, feel this way.

"In the beginning, we thought that Arik would be a new model of coach, the kind that is not boxed in and changes things on the fly, but in practice he doesn't gamble too much and his changes are more the result of experiments," says one team player.

"Coaches seek to make changes when things don't work out, but usually it's like a snowball. You make changes, it doesn't work, and you make more changes. The result is insecurity among the players. A striker cannot score when he starts the game knowing that if he doesn't score, he'll be replaced. Starting from the 46th minute, he doesn't stop looking askance at the bench. Arik needs to give the players more security, and if he doesn't believe in them, then don't let them play."

Sharon Bukov