A 2-1 win at home against AFC Ajax on Wednesday and all of a sudden everything has changed for Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC. As coach Nir Klinger put it: "Football is a fickle thing - two hours ago we were dead and buried and now we are talking about the chances of clinching second place."
Having lost all three of their opening UEFA Champions League Group C games, with 1-0 defeats against FC Bayern München and Juventus FC preceding a 3-0 loss at Ajax on Matchday 3, it seemed to many that last season's Israeli runners-up had been found wanting on a higher stage.
However, two goals from midfield player Barukh Dego within 15 minutes of half-time caused a minor sensation at the Ramat Gan stadium in Tel-Aviv, and all of a sudden the team that started the group stage as the biggest outsiders in the tournament have a chance to dream of a place in the last 16.
"You need to be a football player to be able to understand what I felt like after scoring," said Dego, who struck in the 49th and 57th minutes before Daniel De Ridder pulled a late goal back for Ajax. "I cried when we won the league title in this stadium two years ago and I cried again today after each goal.
"One can win a domestic title a few times in your career," added the Ethiopian-born 23-year-old. "But how many get the chance to play in the Champions League let alone score twice in one match? For us, winning in the Champions League is like winning the championship in Israel."
Dego has had a tempestuous few weeks. Often left out of the team this season, matters came to a head after he was omitted from the squad that lost in Amsterdam. But after it had seemed as though the 2002/03 Israeli Player of the Season was set to leave the club, all is forgiven.
Klinger on trial
If the win against Ajax marked an important moment for Dego, it was an occasion of similar gravity for his coach. Klinger has been criticised this season, with his side well adrift of champions Maccabi Haifa in the league and deemed too conservative to impress their critics in Israel.
Newspaper Haaretz wrote: "Klinger is a good manager, hard working and not a bad tactician, but he came into the Champions League full of fear. Klinger was afraid of conceding goals and afraid of being humiliated, but until yesterday that is exactly what happened."
Certainly, Ajax coach Ronald Koeman was caught cold by their attacking display, even after Maccabi had showed real attacking verve in the first half. "We thought they would not be able to play the same over 90 minutes," he said. Ajax captain Rafael van der Vaart was similarly contrite, saying: "We played very badly and did not deserve to win. Maccabi were not good tonight - it was just that Ajax were very bad.
I think we underestimated them."
Klinger can only hope that Bayern will do the same as Maccabi travel to Munich on Matchday 5, and that Juventus will find their Matchday 6 trip to Tel-Aviv as uncomfortable as Ajax did. "Bayern will face us with all guns blazing," insisted Klinger. Having earned their first-ever Champions League win it seems that Maccabi are not about to go quietly.
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