At different points in time this season, both Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa fans would have defined their respective seasons as disastrous or catatonic. But both clubs proved their worth last night to overcome stubborn rivals and book their place in the State Cup semifinals, to be held early next month.
Hapoel Tel Aviv, in particular, seemed to be heading nowhere fast this season, with fans and players turning against the owner, Eli Tabib - probably the most unpopular owner ever in the club's history. Many pundits expected Hapoel to collapse and lose interest in anything round and bouncy, but that never happened.
Kiryat Shmona ran off with the championship, but the team from the red side of Tel Aviv still have a good chance of claiming a third consecutive State Cup after a tricky 1-0 win over impressive Maccabi Netanya.
Reuven Atar, who may be off to coach his childhood club, Maccabi Haifa, at the end of the season, would have exchanged all the superlatives he accumulated this season for one goal from his star striker, but Ahmed Saba'a had an off day and missed several good chances to score. The game's only goal, when it finally came, was a beauty. Alroey Cohen motored some 30 meters before unleashing a powerful shot into the top right corner, a goal truly worthy of a place in the semifinals.
Maccabi Haifa fans turned out en masse to support their team against Hapoel Upper Nazareth from the Leumit League. Haifa seemed to have shrugged off the indifferent form that plagued them most of the season and saw them crash out of the Champions League, Europa League and, well, the local league as well.
For the first time in aeons, Haifa were never even considered a title contender and thus the State Cup - a trophy that has evaded Haifa for some 14 years - was left as their only possible source of silverware. From the start, there was only going to be one outcome. It only took Yaniv Katan and Idan Vered six minutes to conjure a bit of magic and allow Alon Turgeman to score the easiest of goals. Captain Katan scored the second just before halftime, and Upper Nazareth were never really going to get back into it, with only one serious attack throughout the game.
Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv join Ashdod and Ramat Hasharon in the semifinals. But in a season that saw the most unexpected team celebrate the championship, one shouldn't be too surprised to see an underdog run off with the cup as well.
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