Maccabi Haifa’s dream of winning a first Premier League and State Cup double since 1991 will have to wait at least one more season.
Hapoel Tel Aviv defeated the Greens 1-0 in the cup final at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Wednesday night to claim the trophy for the fourth time in six years, ensuring Israeli soccer’s two most prestigious pieces of silverware will be shared between its two most dominant local forces, with Haifa claiming its seventh championship in 11 seasons last week.
Haifa had all the momentum on its side entering the final, beating Tel Aviv to the league title and outplaying the Reds when the teams last met three-and-a-half weeks ago.
However, Hapoel was clearly the hungrier team on Wednesday and Salim Toama’s sensational goal in the second minute was enough to give Eli Gutman’s side the cup.
Hapoel’s celebrations at the final whistle were more special than usual, as much of Tel Aviv’s squad looks set to disperse across Europe this summer, with coach Gutman announcing after the match that he too will not be back next season.
“This was my last match as coach of Hapoel Tel Aviv,” a jubilant Gutman said after the game. “I told this to the players and explained how important this game is for me. I’m proud of them. This is a sweet ending to the season.”
Eran Zahavi, who looks set to join Serie A club Palermo in the off-season, was delighted to end his time at the club with a title.
“We had a great season,” he said. “We are an excellent team and I want to thank everyone.”
Haifa coach Elisha Levy was understandably disappointed that his team once more failed to lift the cup for the first time since 1998.
“We are very disappointed,” Levy said. “We conceded an early goal and we had to chase Hapoel. We reached some chances but couldn’t convert them and never really came close to scoring in the second half. This is a tough defeat and it is a shame we couldn’t claim the double, but overall we had an excellent season.”
The game was barely two minutes old when Toama put Hapoel 1-0 up.
Striker Ben Sahar crossed the ball from the right and Zahavi headed it on to the veteran midfielder who rifled home past a shocked Nir Davidovich from just inside the penalty area.
Haifa appeared shell-shocked after conceding so early, and Toama nearly got a second when he whipped in a long range free kick three minutes later, but this time Davidovitch managed to palm the ball away for a corner.
Levy’s team was never going to give up on its double dream so easily and soon regained some composure. However, for much of the first half the Greens looked nothing like the force that stormed to claim the Premier League title.
The midfield battle was being easily won by Tel Aviv’s Zahavi and Toama, with Haifa’s Seidu Yahaya and Gustavo Boccoli slow to the mark time and again.
As the game progressed, Hapoel failed to take advantage and its opponent began to fight its way back into the game. Tomer Hemed had Haifa’s first real chance in the 26th minute, when he expertly headed a Yaniv Katan cross towards the bottom corner only to see his effort saved by goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
The Greens began to build some momentum and, with just under half an hour on the clock, had a penalty call waved away when Walid Badier appeared to bring defender Eyal Meshumar down in the box. Referee Meir Levy ruled that Meshumar had made a meal of the challenge and promptly showed him the yellow card.
At the other end, Toto Tamuz went on a stunning slalom run in the 32nd minute, only to trip himself up in the penalty area when he should have done better and at least got off a shot on goal.
Boccoli registered the final chance of the half three minutes from the break, releasing a dangerous effort from outside the area, but Enyeama was well placed and ensured the Reds maintained their one goal lead until the interval.
While Haifa finished the first half the strongest, Tel Aviv came out of the blocks with intent at the start of the second period. Sahar was unlucky to see his early effort trickle past the right hand post after he chipped over a diving Davidovich just a minute into the half.
With seven minutes of the second half gone and Haifa not moving much
closer to scoring, Levy attempted to instill a renewed sense of energy
into his team by taking off Georgian striker Vladimir Dvalishvilli and
replacing him with youngster Idan Vered.
But still Hapoel pushed on, and only the crossbar prevented Badier from
scoring with a powerful header from a corner in the 59th.
Although it played rather defensively, Tel Aviv was the stronger side
for most of the second half, indeed for most of the game. But it was
still surprising to see players’ player of the season Lior Rafaelov
substituted by Levy with just over 10 minutes to play.
However, the introduction of Shlomi Azulai did little to revive Haifa’s hopes.
Substitute Muhammad Ghadir had a golden chance to equalize a minute into
stoppage time when Vered sent a telling ball into the six yard box, but
Shay Abutbul got his toe in front and poked the ball away to save Tel
Aviv and ensure it completed a well-deserved victory.