Five days after making his Maccabi Tel Aviv debut against third division side Hapoel Marmorek in the State Cup, Mladen Krstajic returned to Bloomfield stadium to make his league debut against third place Bnei Sakhnin.

With both teams tied on 21 points and only goal difference separating between them, the newly appointed Serbian coach couldn’t have asked for a another match to guide Maccabi further up the table. Bnei Sakhnin that inflicted Maccabi a 3-1 defeat on the opening day of the season, arrived at Bloomfield stadium for the reverse fixture that opened the second league round.

Krstajic who had several players recovering from illness during the week, made a host of changes from the side that beat Marmorek in the Cup.

Matan Baltaxa, who played at left-back against Marmorek, pushed into the middle and joined Idan Nachmias and Luis Hernandez as three central defenders with Andre Geraldes and Matan Hozez as the two wing-backs on the right and left respectively.

Eden Shamir kept his place in the midfield engine room alongside Eyal Golasa who in the absence of Sheran Yeini, led the team out wearing the captain’s armband. Gabi Kanichowsky was assigned to a more attacking role as the diminutive midfielder lined-up alongside Brandley Kuwas with the duo responsible for supplying the ammunition for Croatian striker Stipe Perica upfront.

First Half

In the opening stages Maccabi tried attacking Sakhnin from the wings through Geraldes and Hozez but couldn’t reach a decisive chance or carve an opening. In the 12th minute however, Maccabi’s defence struggled to clear a corner as Ibrahima Conte whipped in a cross which was headed in by Ante Puljic past Daniel Peretz. The linesman raised his flag for offside but after several minutes of inspecting the incident by VAR, referee Eitan Shmuelevic allowed the goal to count as Sakhnin were in front.

Matan Hozez came close in the 22st minute as he was at the end of a Geraldes cross before firing a volley that Gad Amos managed to push for a corner. Maccabi kept pressing Sakhnin and were awarded two more corners in the space of a minute before Gabi Kanichowsky curled the corner from the right and Matan Baltaxa ghosted at the near post to restore parity by heading-in the equaliser on 23.

Eyal Golasa and Eden Shamir kept battling at the centre of the park with Sakhnin’s midfield trio of Mohamad Kabha, Ihab Ghanaim and veteran captain Beram Kayal. Down the wings on the other hand, Hozez kept on looking lively as he picked a long pass from Shamir in the 32nd minute, cut inside but fired his shot wide of the target.

In the 44th minute though a Kanichowsky run down the left saw Sakhnin’s Moti Barshatzky foul him from behind earning him a red card thus reducing the visitors to 10 men for the remainder of the game.

Second half

With no changes during the interval Maccabi began the second half with urgency aiming to capitalise on their numerical advantage.

In the 56th minute, a foul on Golasa on the edge of the area saw Kanichowsky’s initial free kick blocked before Amos stretched himself to save Golasa’s resulting rebound. Right on the hour mark, Krstajic made his first change as Tal Ben Chaim came in for Brandley Kuwas.

Sakhnin defended deep, wasted as much time as possible and forced the game into minimum playing time a fact which caused tempers to flair both on and off the pitch. Krstajic made a triple substitution in the 72nd minute as Shamir, Golasa and Hozez were replaced by Dan Glazer, Eylon Almog and Eduardo Guerrero. In the 81st minute, Krstajic made his fifth and final substitution as Osama Khalaila replaced Stipe Perica for the final 9 minutes to try win the game against his former club.

Khalaila came close on 87 as he flashed a volley wide of the post following a Nachmias knock down. Sakhnin’s time wasting antics didn’t go unnoticed as the referee awarded 10 minutes of additional time. But several minutes after being booked for a tussle in the box, Khalaila received his second booking for a clash of heads with a Sakhnin opponent. Despite all of Maccabi’s efforts, the visitors managed to hang on amid the growing frustration amongst the majority of the 10,101 fans. Shmuelevic’s final whistle saw Sakhnin and their coach Sharon Mimer celebrate the point they earned with Krstajic will have to wait for his first league victory elsewhere.