The Premier League's Big Zeros

Maccabi Tel Aviv loves to show that it can bench its stars and still win a shutout. So does Hapoel Tel Aviv, though less convincingly.

Maccabi Tel Aviv loves shutout wins. It loves shutout wins especially so that it can see the newspapers and Internet sites write that Maccabi beat any team without conceding a single goal.. It's important for Maccabi that the word zero be written or said in the same breath as its rival.

That's the Maccabi culture.

Four games into the Premier League season, Maccabi leads its opponents 9-0, capped by its 3-0 home victory over Kiryat Shmona on Saturday. Nine goals for, zero goals against. Zero. Because we're something, and they're nothing.

Shutting out opponents is more about psychology than statistics but rather. It's about keeping the two stars who crushed Maccabi Haifa for you five days ago on the bench, just because you can. Shutouts are also about substituting in the second half your three scorers from the first half - again, just because you can.

It's not only the desire to preserve their sensitive legs ahead of the Europa League match in Bordeaux. It’s also to simply to flex one's muscles before the rest of the teams at the top of the local league, Maccabi muscles. The kind of muscle that shuts others out, that says: Rade Prica and Maharan Radi? To us they're just bench players. Gal Alberman? He's not irreplaceable. Barak Itzhaki? It's true he warmed up for the entire second half on Saturday night, and in the end they couldn't find a place for him among the three substitutes, but if he keeps working hard in practices and waits patiently his time will come. There's nothing to it.

Hapoel joins the bandwagon

Hapoel Tel Aviv is also winning by shutouts. On Saturday it beat Hapoel Haifa 4-0 on the road. But somehow, despite the zero being the same zero, the four doesn't really feel like a four. It wasn't bundled up in an extended, impressive blitz, but rather in goals that were a result of disorder at the opponent's goal, errant balls and anemic kicks within the penalty area. The goals won't go into any championship highlight video – not that there will be any championship to speak of, let alone a video.

Yet Hapoel Tel Aviv did bring some good news on Saturday: It’s back in the league, or as the tired cliche has it, "Hapoel is important to the league." In fact, it’s more the other way around.

If the league can find its rhythm, now that it’s “after the holidays” in Israel, Hapoel can as well, stringing together its third, fourth and fifth victories and maybe, just maybe, really have an impact on the league to which it is so important, and which is so important to it.

Saved by the zero

Maccabi Haifa and Sakhnin – 0-0. No goals for Haifa and none for Sakhnin. Just seven or eight weeks ago the following names purportedly caused some sleepless nights for Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Paolo Sousa, while promising sweet dreams for Haifa fans. The great green hopes included Hen Ezra, Yaniv Katan and Spanish midfielder Ruben Rayos.

Maccabi Haifa – of the preseason, of the record season-ticket sales, of the thrilling promos for the 2013-14 season – crushed opponents in friendlies with three-goal and four-goal displays. The team even scored eight goals in one Europa League qualifier, against an opponent whose name even Haifa fans don't remember.

So what happened to the Maccabi Haifa of the summer? Where did this team go to, the team that for several days around the end of July many observers announced unequivocally as their favorite to win the championship? Where is Rayos hiding, of whom it was said just two months ago that had it not been for Spain’s economic collapse he would have sent Garth Bale at Real Madrid to the bench, that he would have been putting together five-goal performances against Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano with Ronaldo?

Why is Maccabi Haifa giving up on the league even before the first night of Hanukkah? Surely it will be back. Clearly it will put on some shows, no? Sooner or later it should find itself comfortably nestled in second place, trailing Maccabi Tel Aviv by single digits or the low teens at most.

Like a magic trick, everything will suddenly work out for Maccabi Haifa. The machine will come to life, the goals will flow and the wins will follow in succession. So why step on the gas pedal only during the slight, pleasant downhills, when everything is working, and not on the steep inclines, when nothing works? And why not take care of it now? Why not do something now that will definitely repay itself tomorrow?

Nir Keidar