29 December 2009 ~ Maccabi Haifa became the worst team ever in the group stages of the Champions League this season, losing all six games without scoring. Four days after their last group match, they faced Hapoel Petach Tikva in the Israeli Premier League. The club's owner, Yaakov Shachar, gathered the players for a motivational chat beforehand and urged them to win. "Our future as a club depends on the consequences of this game," he said. "Anything other than victory could create a snowball effect which could have consequences that I do not even want to think about."
It's worth bearing in mind that at this point Maccabi Haifa were nine points ahead of second placed Hapoel Tel Aviv. Indeed their current success represent a major problem for Israeli football. Maccabi were three up before half time against Hapoel Petach-Tikva and went on win 4-0, in the process extending their lead to 12 points. Clearly the team are in a different class to the other 15 teams in the Israeli Premier League. But the obvious lack of real competition domestically is a huge handicap when they take on European teams in international competition. "To be quite honest, I think the Europa League would be best for our kind of team," said captain Yaniv Katan, adding: "It doesn't surprise me, for example, that Hapoel Tel Aviv managed to get to the knockout stage and so did Red Bull Salzburg whom we beat to qualify for the Champions League."
The reorganisation of the Champions League this year, with some teams from the strongest countries paired off in the qualifiers was designed to help the league winners from mid-ranking leagues. But for Maccabi and others, notably Debrecen, taking part has involved humiliation even if it was financially rewarding. "Will Maccabi Haifa score a goal?" was one of the newspaper headlines in the build-up to their last group match with Bordeaux. But even though the French side fielded a weakened team they eased to a 1-0 win.
Chairman Shahar is a very wealthy man, with a personal fortune of around $500 million, and Maccabi's budget of some $12m is the highest in Israel. But the key factor in their current dominance – they have now won 13 of their 14 league matches – is the fairly miserable condition of Israel's top division. Last summer the Israeli FA decided to increase the raise the number of highest-level clubs from 12 to 16. This has presented the league leaders with a succession of easy matches that have done nothing to help them prepare for the Champions League. They club say that this season's flop was down to "growing pains" and the experience will leave them better prepared. What would help them most, however, would be if their qualification for the Champions League was less of a foregone conclusion. Itay Goder