Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv are just one win away from a mouthwatering showdown in the State Cup final, but neither team is taking anything for granted ahead of Monday’s semifinals at Nokia Arena.
The last time a Tel Aviv derby was played in the Cup final was exactly 20 years ago when Maccabi beat Hapoel 64-53.
Both sets of supporters, and most neutral fans, would like to see the classic rivalry renewed in Thursday’s final, but despite being the favorites ahead of their respective semifinals, Maccabi and Hapoel are anything but complacent.
Hapoel faces Hapoel Eilat in the first semi of the day before Maccabi comes up against Maccabi Rishon Lezion.
Maccabi Tel Aviv saw its 17-game winning streak over all competitions come to an end with last Thursday’s 74-68 defeat at Real Madrid in the Euroleague, but is extremely confident of returning to winning ways against the struggling Rishon.
The yellow-and-blue has won 10 consecutive games against local opponents, while Rishon lost four of five league contests during January, dropping to a 5-12 record, just two games above Maccabi Ashdod in last place.
Rishon was also thrashed by 21 points (79-58) when it faced Maccabi two months ago, soon after which coach Matan Harush was replaced by veteran Tzvika Sherf. The only real positive for Rishon ahead of Monday’s encounter is the many close-calls Maccabi has experienced on the way to its recent BSL victories.
Maccabi had to come back from 18 points down to beat Bnei Herzliya 90-88 last week, with the yellow-andblue’s past six league wins coming by an average of just five points per game.
“I think we have been playing good basketball for a while now and the fact we have struggled in the league is credit to our BSL rivals,” said Tel Aviv coach David Blatt. “We are entering this week in a good situation. We are preparing for this game the same way we do for every game, although it is slightly different from a mental standpoint as it is a knockout game. I hope our experience will help us, although it guarantees us nothing.”
Despite being a massive underdog, Sherf, who has got six cups on his resume from his time as Maccabi coach in the 1980’s and 1990’s, believes his team can give Tel Aviv a run for its money.
“Despite all our problems at the bottom of the standings we will give our best effort,” said Sherf. “I’m happy to be here because you never know when you might be back. You need to take advantage of the opportunity and I told that to my players. Maccabi is one of the best teams in Europe. They are always the favorites.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv is hoping to welcome back star-scorer Raviv Limonad from injury when it meets Eilat in the first semi of the day.
After going unbeaten in December and winning six straight league games at one stage, Hapoel has dropped two of its four contests since losing Limonad to a shoulder injury three weeks ago.
Limonad has scored at least 15 points in all 14 of the BSL games he has played for the team this season, while also reaching the mark in the last 16 of the cup and quarterfinals.
“We didn’t talk about Raviv when he was missing and we aren’t going to talk about him now,” said Tel Aviv coach Erez Edelstein, whose team knocked out Hapoel Jerusalem in the quarterfinals.
“Hapoel Eilat has four Israel internationals on its roster and that says it all.
They play with a very special style and you have to be very focused against their pick-and-roll. If we don’t play the defense we displayed a month ago we will find it very difficult to win.”
Tel Aviv beat Eilat by seven points (89-82) when they met in BSL action last month, with Oded Katash’s men defeating Edelstein’s team at the buzzer in Israel’s southernmost city back in October.
“We have experienced an erratic season so far,” said Katash, whose team has amassed a 9-8 record in the BSL to date. “We are facing a difficult opponent but we are ready. Whether you are the favorite or not, in the cup everyone has the same dream.”
Monday on TV: State Cup semifinals: Hapoel Eilat vs Hapoel Tel Aviv (live on Channel 1 at 5:35
p.m.); Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Maccabi Rishon Lezion
(live on Channel 1 at 8:45 p.m.)