One could feel that the Autumn was beginning to make its presence felt in Tallaght that Wednesday evening in September when Maccabi Tel Aviv arrived in town for a quick pre match training session the evening before they would take on Dundalk in the second round of the 2016/2017 Europa League.
As a couple of squally rain showers blew in over the Dublin mountains the well wrapped up Israeli side kept themselves entertained by placing a set of goalposts on the halfway line and standing behind it the players tried to curl the ball into the net by judging the wind.
It was a confident group that strutted about that evening and they had every reason to be. Maccabi arrived in Dublin having only lost once in 19 games (a 4-3 home collapse to Zenit St. Petersburg) and were buoyed by a 5-0 derby win over fierce rivals Hapoel that had them sitting on top of the Ligat Ha’al.
Just as Tal Ben Chaim had succeeded in judging the wind correctly Maccabi general manager Jordi Cruyff looked up at the darkening sky and commented to his press team “Rain, I don’t like this”.
It was indeed a stark contrast to the balmy surrounds of the Mediterranean city of Netanya where a boisterous crowd roared them to victory over their cross city rivals on a humid night only forty eight hours previous…the rest is history
It’s a very different looking Maccabi that Dundalk face on Thursday night in the Netanya Stadium.
Maccabi have won just once in the last eight games and that last minute victory over Kiryat Shmona that was sandwiched between six defeats was the only time Maccabi scored in those last eight games.
In fact, since their defeat to Dundalk in Tallaght, which was only their second defeat in 20 matches, Maccabi have played eleven games, winning three and losing six.
A scoreless draw at home to rock bottom Hapoel Ashkelon last Saturday night stopped a rot of three consecutive defeats that has seen them fall ten points behind league leaders Hapoel Be’er Sheva who on Saturday gave themselves the perfect warm up for the visit of Southampton by thumping SC Ashdod 5-0.
Whilst Maccabi’s domestic form has nosedived, their European performances in the last three group games since the loss in Tallaght have offered slightly more encouragement.
After going down to Kieran Kilduff’s strike, Maccabi followed up by taking four points from AZ Alkmaar, putting them right back in contention.
Their performance in Holland at the club where coach Shota Arvaldze began his training career in 2007 was clinical as two superb strikes from Argentinian midfielder Ezequel Sacarrione and former Maccabi Haifa and PAOK striker Eyal Golasa saw Maccabi win 2-1.
A highly entertaining scoreless draw against the same opposition in Netanya highlighted Maccabi’s problems, an inability to convert a number of glorious chances whilst still looking highly vulnerable at the back.
A trip to Zenit followed and, in a game Maccabi again really could have won, a defensive error before half time and a 90th minute free kick consigned them to a two nil reversal.
Arvaladze has a wealth of attacking options at his disposal; on Saturday night against Ashkelon, Maccabi finished with five strikers on the pitch.
Eyal Golassa and Bosnian Haris Medunjanin, who impressed in Dublin, continue to carve up the opposition defensive cover with craft and vision.
However Maccabi’s attack, which is led by Vidar Kjartansson, continues to misfire.
The Icelandic international was joined up front on Saturday night by Israeli internationals Tal Ben Chaim and Eden Ben Bassat, who joined from Toulouse two years ago, but despite dominating possession Maccabi failed to convert.
Yossi Benayoun didn’t feature and remained on the bench for the duration of proceedings.
Tal Ben Haim, Maccabi’s veteran central defender who played with a staggering nine different English clubs, stressed the importance of the upcoming game against Dundalk when speaking to Maccabi TV after Saturday night’s game.
These aren’t the results we wanted but there’s no choice right now and we have a very important match coming on Thursday night in the Europa League.
We’re not going to put our heads down and I hope that we will win it and start down a new path.
Unfortunately we haven’t been able to score and I don’t remember seeing a team that has gone through these types of situations for such a long period of time. I hope that on Thursday we will break out of this.
It’s hard to put a finger on the exact problem, but I can say that our coach is doing the maximum every day at practice and we are all behind him. We haven’t been able to do our utmost as players, each one of us. We have to double our efforts and keep our heads up.
Truthfully, we haven’t been good and we are working hard to improve. You won’t hear me say something about an individual player, we are all in this as a team.
We have good enough players and a good enough coach to get out of this situation together and I hope we will see this on Thursday.”
You’re not seeing an apathetic team that just doesn’t care, it’s exactly the opposite. You are seeing players who care, who are running hard and you can see that in the stats. Everyone is running, trying hard and we are all battling.
The coach can’t do much more when he’s playing the last 20 minutes of the match with Tal Ben Chaim, Dor Micha, Barak Itzhaki, Eden Ben Basat and Vidar Kjartansson. We played with five strikers.
When we show our abilities and our luck will change a bit then you’ll see a totally different Maccabi Tel Aviv. The coach is doing the maximum and the responsibility lies on us, the players.”
Whilst Arvaladze continues to rotate his attacking formation, even dropping club captain Gal Alberman for last weekend’s clash, he retains faith in the same goalkeeper and back four that looked less than assured against Dundalk.
Daryl Horgan exposed the weakness on the right hand side of the Maccabi back four that night, and Ben Haim and Omri Ben Harush had difficulty dealing with David Macmillan and Kilduff who are not the regular type of customer they would encounter domestically.
Predrag Rajkovic still does not inspire confidence between the sticks either and Stephen Kenny is no doubt aware that opportunities will arise.