Oscar Garcia, Coach of the Year

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 5-0 trouncing of Hapoel Be’er Sheva illustrated how this Spaniard turned a mediocre squad into the leading championship contender.

Maccabi Tel Aviv proved its detractors wrong on Monday night with an emphatic 5-0 win over Hapoel Be’er Sheva at Bloomfield Stadium, leapfrogging over crosstown rival Hapoel Tel Aviv to return to first place in the league table.

Ivorian defender Steve Gohouri opened the scoring in only the fifth minute, as coach Oscar Garcia and general manager Jordi Cruyff celebrated on the sideline. A brace by the league’s hottest striker right now, Eliran Atar, in the 11th and 43rd minutes put Maccabi ahead 3-0 at halftime. Maharan Radi added the fourth in the 68th minute and Moshe Lugasi wound up the scoring 10 minutes before time.

The Maccabi of old, with all its glittering stars, would probably not have produced such a result in a week when Hapoel Tel Aviv passed it into the top spot and Maccabi Haifa continued its remarkable revival and is now breathing down the Tel Avivians’ necks in third. In previous seasons this situation would probably have led to the team imploding, with its coach getting sacked in the process and another wasted season entering into the dustbin of history.

Not the Maccabi Tel Aviv of 2013. Hapoel Be’er Sheva down the years has proved to be Maccabi’s jinx team, consistently destroying its inflated hopes with an embarrassing win. Yet this was one of Maccabi’s best performances of the season, well-paced and enthusiastic, and topped off by some sharpened goal-poaching skills. Maccabi came close to scoring on many occasions as Be’er Sheva came apart, losing red-carded midfielder Firas Awad early in the second half and even missing a penalty in the process.

“Maccabi was better than us in every parameter from the outset,” admitted Be’er Sheva coach Elisha Levy after suffering one of the most painful defeats of his coaching career. Now Garcia has to face a new problem: The five goals and return to the summit will put extra pressure on his charges to reprise the feat, and Maccabi’s fans are hungry for a Premier League title after a decade in the shadow of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

“We are working hard and all the players know what is expected of them, and this makes me happy,” the coach said after the game, but tried to keep his players’ feet firmly on the ground. “It’s still too early to celebrate. I’ll do that after the last game [of the season]” he added.

Maccabi Tel Aviv this season has been trained to do what previous lineups have not been able to accomplish ? not screw up. Spanish coach Garcia has managed to turn a mediocre roster into a championship-challenging team devoid of obvious stars. The squad has meshed to such an extent that others cannot bluff them. Take for example Hapoel Be’er Sheva coach Levy’s rather foolhardy proclamation before Monday’s game: “We can win at any stadium in the league,” he said, in an attempt at gamesmanship.

No flinching

Maccabi this year has been trained for exactly this type of encounter. There have been no brilliant touches or outstanding results so far this season. The team fields a dull defensive lineup in the big games against tough opponents ? but Hapoel Be’er Sheva is not one of those opponents and Garcia saw through Levy’s boast. Maccabi this year is better trained than any other of its rosters of the past decade: It doesn’t flinch in the face of a bluff. This team comes prepared.

Oscar Garcia - not Arik Benado - is already the coach of the season. He turned a mediocre squad into the leading championship candidate. It’s as if no one remembers just how ordinary this squad is - Oscar made the players believe they are a great team. Of course, Maccabi Tel Aviv played some excellent games in the previous two seasons, but this year the team has united. Now Maccabi has signed 32-year-old Swedish striker Rade Prica - the only player to have has won league championships in all three Scandinavian countries - from Rosenborg of Norway. Former Hapoel Tel Aviv star attacking midfielder Eran Zahavi may also join soon from Serie A club Palermo, where he is struggling to find a regular first-team spot. But even without them, Maccabi is looking ahead to the championship.

How did this happen all of a sudden? Is it because of the squad? Better lineups coached by Avi Nimni, Motti Ivanir and Ran Ben Shimon collapsed under the pressure. Under Oscar, nothing looks like it’s collapsing. Maccabi’s lineup doesn’t feature names like Toto Tamuz, Gil Vermouth, Omer Damari or Tal Ben Haim - players who show erratic brilliance but lack consistency. But Maccabi does have Atar and Gal Alberman from the last, disappointing season. It also has Radi, who signed from Bnei Sakhnin. Yet somehow it feels like Maccabi has more than the sum of its parts to offer.

Neither the roster nor the club’s budget underwent a revolution 0 it’s the team itself that has been revolutionized. Oscar, the coach of the year, is the revolution.

Nimrod Glickman