Michael Yokhin provides the lowdown on Chelsea's latest Champions League opponents...
Who are they?
Maccabi Tel Aviv are not only the oldest club in Israel, they are older than the country itself. Established in 1906, no fewer than 42 years before David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the Jewish state, Maccabi won four of their 21 championship titles in the so-called Palestine League in the '30s and '40s.
The most illustrious Israeli club, Maccabi are well ahead of city rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv (13) and Maccabi Haifa (12) in terms of titles won. They did experience a very difficult decade of underachievement and mismanagement between 2003 and 2012, however, never in contention for major honours and gradually becoming a laughing stock in the eyes of their opponents.
All that changed when Canadian owner Mitchell Goldhar named Jordi Cruyff as the club’s new sporting director in April 2012. Maccabi have been the best managed and most financially powerful club in the country ever since, winning three championships in a row with outrageous ease and making the legendary Johan Cruyff immensely proud of his son. Such is Maccabi’s domination that they are often accused of killing the competitiveness of the league by signing the best players and creating a very deep squad; Maccabi are to the Israeli top flight what Bayern Munich are to the Bundesliga.
One of the keys to their success is maintaining stability despite constant changes in the dugout. Oscar Garcia, Paulo Sousa and Pako Ayestaran all spent a solitary season in Tel Aviv, winning the title before moving on to pastures new. Slavisa Jokanovic, who led Watford to promotion last term, was chosen as the new coach this summer; the Serb managed to fulfil the club’s long-time dream of qualifying for the Champions League group stage, even though the campaign started with a dismal defeat in Malta at the hands of Hibernians. Jokanovic remained confident despite fierce criticism in the press, and went on to masterminded sensational results against Viktoria Plzen and Basel.
Maccabi have become the best managed club in the country, winning three championships in a row with outrageous ease and making the legendary Johan Cruyff immensely proud of his son
With Maccabi now set to receive generous bonuses from UEFA, the gulf between them and the rest of the league is likely to become even wider. Their ambitions were highlighted at the end of August in what was arguably the biggest deal in the club's history. 19-year-old Predrag Rajkovic, the star of the Serbia Under-19 national team that won the European Championship in 2013 and under-21 side that became world champions last summer, is considered the best goalkeeper in his age group. He was linked to numerous top clubs, including Milan, but chose to sign for Maccabi in order to play in the Champions League. Rajkovic signed a five-year contract last month and the Israelis, who paid Red Star Belgrade just €3 million for his services, are bound to make a very hefty profit when he moves on.
Maccabi showed remarkable mental strength during the qualifiers, a rare quality as far as Israeli teams are concerned. Despite conceding two early goals in the home game with Plzen and losing 2-1, they triumphed 2-0 in the return leg to overturn the deficit. In the play-off round, Maccabi came back thrice against Basel to draw 2-2 away and 1-1 at home. They achieved it with no little help from Eran Zahavi, whose winning mentality and uncanny ability to score at crucial moments are huge assets for Maccabi. There is a feeling that the 28-year-old can rescue the team in any game.
Being so dependant on Zahavi is also a major weakness: stop their star midfielder-cum-striker, and Maccabi’s ability to score ranges from minimal to non-existent. Maccabi are well organised at the back under Jokanovic, but most of their players lack experience at the highest level. Tal Ben Haim, the veteran stopper who has seen it all and even played for Chelsea himself, is simply not quick enough at the age 33.
Playing home games in Haifa rather than at their beloved Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv – considered too small by the powers that be at 14,413 capacity – could also prove to be a disadvantage.
The game plan
Jose Mourinho is often accused of parking the bus, but the boot will be on the other foot on Tuesday. Maccabi have a penchant for extremely defensive football, even when they need to score – something they've only done once in their four European group games this season. They tend to sit deep and look to use the speed of Tal Ben Haim II, the winger who shouldn’t be confused with his namesake, to provide quick passes to Zahavi. Watch out for the defensive midfielder Gal Alberman, who covers a lot of ground – his role could be compared to that of Nemanja Matic at Chelsea.
Maccabi played extremely defensive football against Plzen and Basel, even when they needed to score. They tend to sit very deep and look to use the speed of Tal Ben Haim II
Zahavi’s current scoring record is so phenomenal that some consider him to be the best footballer in Israeli history. The captain has found the back of the net 87 times in 119 appearances in all competitions, and his habit of ghosting into the penalty area makes him very difficult to mark.
Zahavi grew up at Hapoel Tel Aviv, and his decision to join Maccabi in January 2013 after a rather unsuccessful spell at Palermo was greeted with some scepticism. He managed to endear himself to Yellows fans almost immediately, though, and could go on to be remembered as the club’s greatest-ever player.
Maccabi Tel Aviv are much more famous for their basketball team, who have won the Euroleague six times. The football club will never reach such heights, of course, but there are some parallels between the two nowadays as far as the professional – some would say ruthless – style of management is concerned.
Avi Nimni, who failed in his European adventures at Atletico Madrid and Derby County, is the ultimate hero of Maccabi fans following his goalscoring heroics over the previous two decades. Although the club retired the No.8 shirt in his honour, Nimni failed as Maccabi manager and his unique cult status is increasingly under threat from golden boy Zahavi.