Israeli champion Maccabi Tel Aviv cruised past Hungarian Giory with a 2-1 victory on Tuesday night, following on the 2-0 win in Hungary last week, and will now battle Swiss champion FC Basel for a place in the Champions League group stage.
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Maccabi was unfortunate not to score half a dozen goals. Barak Itzhaki, back from a season in Cyprus, skillfully managed to present his teammates with two golden opportunities to score in the opening five minutes. Itzhaki looks the real deal, but it was new boy Tal Ben Haim, who joined Maccabi from Hapoel Tel Aviv this summer, who scored the first goal in the 26th minute, latching onto a beautiful through ball by Maharan Radi.
Maccabi then proceeded to reach an open shot on goal every 30 seconds or so, in what could have led to a basketball score if it weren't for goalkeeper Lubos Kamenar, who, as in last week's game, was the only Giory player who seemed up to the task. Eran Zahavi, another former Hapoel Tel Aviv player, headed the second in the 79th minute, before Leandro Martinez scored the consolation goal in the 87th minute.
"I'm happy with the way we played in both games and the chances we had," said Maccabi's new coach, Paulo Sousa. "I'm happy for the players; they worked hard and deserved to win. This was the first game in this weather and it wasn't easy. Some of the players are already able to play for a full 90 minutes, others are on their way. This was my first game at Bloomfield, and I'm so pleased to see how the fans get behind the team. Basel is a tough rival, but they also weren't that pleased to find out that we would be their rivals."
Still, Maccabi will be the underdog in the two games against Basel. The team has had only one appearance in the Champions League (in 2005 when they were in a group with Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax Amsterdam), while Basel has four Champions League campaigns under its belt.
Basel will host the first game next week, and come to Tel Aviv the week after.
Jordi's project, part II
The good news for Maccabi on Tuesday didn't have that much to do with the game itself – for all practical purposes Maccabi had already won the contest last week – but rather from the stands and the fans' commitment to the team. Maccabi has already sold a staggering number of season tickets – 10,300, more than any other club in Israeli history and far more than during its failed "galacticos" season, when Giovanni Rosso and Eyal Berkovic teamed up with Avi Nimni.
But that's to be expected from Maccabi Tel Aviv, the club with the largest fan base in Israel, even if many of the fans did disappear in recent years when the team was in a long slump. The 50 percent increase in season ticket sales compared to last season won't only please boss Mitch Goldhar, but is also good news for Israeli soccer as a whole. Maccabi's challenge this season will be to prove that the championship wasn't a fluke, and that the club is really back to its natural position as Israel's top club. The trust fans demonstrated by showing up en masse to purchase the season tickets is only the first step.
Continuity is the key word here. Even after the departure of last season's coach Oscar Garcia, Jordi Cruyff is still here to continue his project. Winning the league after a decade was an important first step. Bringing the fans back is even more important. Success in Europe? Of course that matters, but in the long term, returning Maccabi to a position of dominance and attracting fans will eventually pay off in Europe too. Bringing kids and their dads back to the stands is even more important than beating Basel.
If the sun does continue to shine on Jordi's project, then together with Goldhar's big bucks, Maccabi just might fulfill the decades-long dream it's had ever since the old Maccabiah stadium was demolished. While stadiums are constructed and revamped in Haifa, Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Netanya, it's about time Israel's most decorated club get a stadium of its own. As Tuesday's rubber stamp game at Bloomfield Stadium proved, this club has thousands of fans who would cherish a stadium they could really call home.