All down to the last 60 minutes
Maccabi or Hapoel Rishon Letzion will be crowned champion tonight.
The 2011/2012 handball season will come to an end this evening with one half of Rishon Letzion celebrating, as Maccabi and Hapoel do battle in the fifth and deciding game of the final series. Thanks to a better goal difference in the series thus far, Maccabi needs just a draw to lift the trophy for the fourth consecutive year, while Hapoel needs to beat its old rival to be crowned champion for the first time since 2008.
"This series has certainly lived up to expectations in terms of excitement," said Maccabi line player Offer Luzon yesterday. "This is the best possible thing that could have happened to Israeli handball: It's a derby and it's gone to a fifth game. People might not think of handball as a professional sport, but it is one of the most competitive disciplines in Israel, as we have proved with this thrilling series."
Hapoel coach Sa'ar Frankel agreed. "It's been a fascinating series," he said. "Both teams bounced back from defeats with superb performances, and I just hope that having won Game 4, we can buck the trend and win the series. We've played a lot of games in the past few days, which is something that Israeli players aren't used to. That's why I have been focusing with my team on the psychological aspects."
As expected, this has been a highly physical series but has - thankfully - not been plagued with the kind of overzealousness that blighted previous encounters between the two city rivals. Players on both sides of the divide have expressed their relief that no one forgot that this is, after all, a sporting event.
"I was worried that the games would be a lot more violent than they actually were," said Luzon, who is getting married tomorrow. "Both teams have experience of games that have descended into violence, but this time there is a real sense that the players are friends and that they made a decision to keep it clean. We play hard but fair, and that's important."
Many members of the Hapoel squad were upset at the cavalier attitude that Maccabi displayed ahead of the final series. Senior team officials told Haaretz that they felt their cross-town rival did not really consider Hapoel to be a worthy opponent - which only served to increase their motivation.
"We got the feeling that they were sure they would sweep the series," said Hapoel's massive Serbian left-back, Bojan Butulija, yesterday. "Even before the series began, that was the impression we got and as the series went on, we were delighted to prove them wrong."
Luzon disagrees. "We didn't think that we would sweep the series at a trot," he says, "but until we actually played the games we didn't realize quite how good Hapoel is. They have proved that they are every bit as good as us and, at times, were better than us."
Both sides know, however, that they have to put to one side everything that has happened in the series thus far and invest all of the energy in tonight's deciding game.
"Both sets of players know each other like the back of their hands," said Frankel. "There's very little room left for surprises. The players need to be relaxed and focused, and find just the right level of aggression. They must not lose their heads. I'm just praying that the referees don't determine the outcome of the championship with some rash decisions."
Frankel believes that he has found the right balance between youth and experience to snatch the title from Maccabi. "We have four or five players with a lot of experience who know exactly what I expect of them. And the younger players, who are in the final series for the first time, will give everything they've got for 60 more minutes. They have already had a superb season, and whatever happens in the final game, I will be proud of them."