What Did You Do Last Summer, Maccabi Tel Aviv?

Premier League champion is determined to stay in command locally and reach theChampions League group stage. But did the staff do its part?

There is still no opening date for next season’s Premier League, but three out of Israel’s four representatives in Europe will start their international season over the next week. After a flurry of wheeling and dealing and politics, it’s time for just soccer.

Ahead of the upcoming battles of the local teams in Europe, let’s survey the preparations and changes made in the four teams dreaming of getting past the preliminary stages, starting with the champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Coach Paulo Sousa managed to return from training camp and hold a friendly against Ashdod before flying to Hungary over the weekend to scout out Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first opponent, Gyori. Maccabi Tel Aviv will face its rival in the second qualifying round of the Champions League on Wednesday. Sousa’s outlook, it turns out, is no different than the coaches we know in Israel and abroad, who tend to close their practices to the press.

The friendly against Ashdod, which ended in a scoreless draw, was closed to the press and caused great disappointment among fans who wanted to steal a glance at their idols before the big match against the Hungarian champion.

The friendly against Hapoel Rishon Letzion, which ended in a 1-0 victory for Maccabi, was actually open to the press, but mainly reserve players and members of Maccabi’s youth team appeared in that game. One could criticize Sousa, but that’s the way, it seems, coaches behave nowadays at the highest level.

Maccabi officials feared that the Hungarians sent a spy and preferred to hide certain tactical matters. It’s their right. Sousa watched Gyori defeat Debrecen in the Hungarian Super Cup on Saturday. He then returned here to hold two more practices with an emphasis on what he saw in Hungary. He returns with the team to play on Wednesday.

Despite the huge criticism about the general running of Maccabi and of Jordi Cruyff last summer, in the end the champion assembled a strong roster, at least at the Israeli league level. On paper it seems Maccabi is no weaker at the goalkeeper position, and the great fear of the departure of Vincent Enyeama dissipated last week with the signing of a goalkeeper of the highest order from Spain, Juan Pablo. Still, because of the late timing of his joining, Barak Levi is expected to stand in the goal in the first game.

Embarrassment of backfielders

Maccabi significantly improved in the backfield. It has three players who can play left fullback: new Spanish acquisition Mane, a player with a proven track record and rich experience; Omri Ben Harush, who can play well as a defender; and veteran Yoav Ziv.

Sheran Yeini will stay at the right back position. One of the weaker links in Maccabi’s chain is the midfield. Cruyff didn’t manage to add a player from the higher ranks of Europe, and stayed with Gal Alberman, Maharan Radi and Eran Zahavi as the leading midfielders. It’s doubtful whether Dan Einbinder, even if he were more talented, would be sufficient to share in the expected burden. With that, loaning out Gonzalo Garcia to Cyprus cleared a spot for a foreign player, and in the coming days the team will try to add another midfielder.

Many question marks hang over Maccabi’s attack. Eliran Atar left for France after Maccabi opted to sell the player before the end of his contract, and Barak Itzhaki, who Cruyff believes is no worse than the leading goal scorer last season, returned. There’s no doubt regarding Itzhaki’s great talent, the finest to bloom in Israel over the last 20 years. The question is which player Macacbi will receive − the unstoppable striker who was at Beitar Jerusalem, or the disappointment from his first stint in yellow.

Besides Itzhaki, Maccabi added Tal Ben Haim. If Sousa can figure out how to manage with Ben Haim and get the most out of him, the contribution of the striker who crossed the city street will be very significant indeed.

Another question is how the two will cooperate − whether there will be healthy competition between them, or the kind that causes one to hurt the other.

Maccabi officials say that in practice, the two got along fantastically. One official said Itzhaki and Ben Haim know that one depends on the other, and that to succeed that have to check their egos at the gate. “Maccabi’s goal is to reach the Champions League group stage,” said the source. “No one will let Barak or Ben Haim hurt the team because of ego battles. Meanwhile the two are good kids and it looks like we’ll enjoy them quite a lot during the season.”

In case of emergency, Sousa has the talented Dor Micha and Moanes Dabour on the bench. And let’s not forget Swede Rade Prica, who already proved his ability last season.

Maccabi sold 10,000 season tickets as of this past weekend, and officials expect in the coming days to set a club record. The team has wanted to leave Bloomfied for the past two seasons and move to the Moshava Stadium in Petah Tikva, but once again bowed to the will of its fans to stay in Jaffa.

Officials expect about 1,000 Maccabi fans to make the trip to the game in Hungary. “If Maccabi reaches the Champions League it will sell all the subscriptions in one day, and it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. The crowd is fanatic,” said one official.

Sharon Bukov