Maccabi Tel Aviv players celebrate their Toto Cup victory.
(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Even with star midfielder Eran Zahavi watching from the stands, Maccabi Tel Aviv claimed the season’s first title on Wednesday night, beating Maccabi Haifa 2-1 in the Toto Cup final in Netanya.
Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran said he would make changes to his lineup for the final, with a crunch Premier League showdown against Hapoel Beersheba coming up on Monday. However, no one, including Zahavi himself, expected him to leave out his top scorer, who has netted 16 goals in 13 league appearances this season.
The yellow-and-blue struggled without Zahavi, but nevertheless eked out the win and claimed its first Toto Cup since 2008/2009, and fifth in club history, after Nikola Mitrovic scored the winner from the penalty spot in the 82nd minute.
Haifa, which was guided by new coach Marco Balbul for the first time, was centimeters away from taking the lead in the 13th minute, with Hen Ezra’s shot hitting the post. The Greens would gift Tel Aviv the opener in the 41st minute, with Matan Ohayon woefully heading the ball into his own net in what was an attempt to return the ball to goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
Tel Aviv would return the favor eight minutes into the second half, with defender Eitan Tibi tucking the ball beyond his ‘keeper Barak Levy instead of just leaving it for him to collect.
Neither team created much for the remainder of the match, but the yellow-and-blue would clinch the win from the spot via Mitrovic, after Dekel Keinan shoved Barak Badash in the box.
“It wasn’t a great final. I think we had better games than today,” said Pako. “Some people say finals are to win and not to play well.
“But to be honest I would prefer to play well because this is a sign that the team is going in the right direction. Sometimes when you change 3-4 players, even if they are great players, everything changes.
But I think every member of the team deserves to show they are capable of adding to the team.
Our success or failure will be down to the squad and I think the players who played today deserved to be there.”
Despite the defeat, Balbul was pleased with his team’s performance.
“The important thing is that we played well,” said Balbul, who replaced Serbian Aleksandar Stanojevic on Sunday. “We closed them well and both their goals came from our mistakes.
We created a lot of chances and I’m pleased with what I saw.”