Beitar Jerusalem’s Yossi Benayoun.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
While they remain in the thick of the Premier League title race with the campaign almost at its halfway mark, Hapoel Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem are well aware that their best chance of claiming silverware this season nevertheless rests in the State Cup.
Two-time reigning champion Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv remain the clear favorites to finish the league campaign in first place, even though Haifa is just one point back of leader Beersheba, with Beitar two points further behind.
Haifa and Beitar, who on paper lack the depth and quality Beersheba and Maccabi have in their squads, will be among the first top flight teams to begin their cup campaigns on Thursday when the round-of-32 gets under way.
Haifa and Beitar both visit National League opponents, with the former going to Hapoel Petah Tikva and Jerusalem traveling to Hapoel Rishon Lezion.
Haifa is coming off a 1-0 over Bnei Yehuda, while Beitar beat Maccabi Petah Tikva by the same score-line.
Beitar’s preparations for a match have once more been overshadowed by a distraction created by disgruntled midfielder Yossi Benayoun. The veteran hasn’t hidden his dissatisfaction regarding the playing time he has received so far this season and on Wednesday he met with club owner Eli Tabib and boss Eli Ohana to discuss his situation with the January transfer window now open.
Benayoun is set to feature on Thursday and the parties agreed to meet again next week following the league game against Hapoel Haifa on Monday.
Rishon is entering the match on the back of a victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv in National League action.
“Beitar is one of the best teams in the country, but anything can happen in the cup,” said Rishon coach Nir Berkovic, the brother of Eyal Berkovic, who runs the club.
“I believe in my players and we will give our all. I believe that if we will be committed we will be able to surprise everyone.”
Four more matches will be played on Thursday, including the only all-Premier League encounter in the round-of-32 between Hapoel Ashkelon and Ashdod SC.
Seven matches will be held on Friday, with Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv to enter the fray on Saturday.
Beersheba, which hasn’t won the cup since 1997, visits Ahi Nazareth of the National League.
Maccabi faces the amateur players of Bnei MMBE HaGolan VeHaGalil, which became the first senior team from the Druze towns in the Golan Heights to join the Israeli league system in 2015.
MMBE, which plays in local soccer’s fourth division (Liga Bet), is initials for the four towns the club represents: Mas’ade, Majdal Shams, Buq’ata and Ein Qiniyye.
The final tie of the round will be played on Sunday when Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts Maccabi Haifa in a repeat of the finals from 2011 and 2012.