Jordi Cruyff has called Eran Zahavi "one of the best signings in the history of Maccabi Tel-Aviv" and if they beat Basel to the group stage, it would owe a lot to the qualifying top scorer.
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Top scorer in UEFA Champions League qualifying after his heroics last week at FC Basel, Europe is learning what everyone in Israeli football has long known: Maccabi Tel-Aviv forward Eran Zahavi is a born winner.
Maccabi began their campaign in the second qualifying round with a 2-1 defeat at Hibernians in Malta but a week later Zahavi struck twice for a 5-1 victory. They were in even more trouble in the next stage against Viktoria Plzeň, having lost 2-1 at home, but Zahavi netted twice in the last 14 minutes in the Czech Republic and kept up that form last Wednesday. In Basel he gave Maccabi the lead and then, after the home side had got what seemed a late clincher, headed in a 96th-minute equaliser.
His team could end an 11-year wait for a group stage return on Tuesday, and after the first leg Zahavi declared: "I want the second leg to be tomorrow." Maccabi coach Slaviša Jokanović had measured his words after the game – until he came to his captain: "He is the best Israeli player to date. He has started off where he finished last season, in wonderful form, and I knew Basel would focus on him but he managed to do it again."
The 28-year-old Zahavi now has 78 goals from 105 Maccabi appearances, and also boasts group stage experience with their city rivals Hapoel Tel-Aviv in 2010/11. He scored three goals including a scissor-kick finish against Olympique Lyonnais, one of many great Zahavi moments that have been replayed in Israel over the last week.
"To get to the group stage of the Champions League you must go through a lot," said Zahavi, who spent 18 months in Italy with Palermo before joining Maccabi in January 2013. "Even at Bloomfield Stadium we will have many hard moments, but in order to play on the biggest stage in European football you must get through that."
His streak continued on Saturday with two goals as Maccabi launched their Israeli league title defence with a 3-2 success against Bnei Sakhnin, prompting club general manager Jordi Cruyff to say: "I think he is one of the best signings in the history of Maccabi Tel-Aviv. He's the one that gets the final touch to win a game. He is a leader and unlike other players the fact he got a new and improved contract only got him to play better."
However, Cruyff – like coach Jokanović – is still cautious about whether Maccabi can finish the play-off job on Tuesday: "I still think Basel are the obvious favourites to win and we must go to Bloomfield with the best that we have. They are more experienced and we will have to fight like animals."