(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
With its Premier League championship challenge losing momentum in recent weeks, Hapoel Beersheba looks to the first leg of the State Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday in the hope of ending its 18-year title drought.
Beersheba trails league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv by eight points after conceding a stoppage-time penalty to draw 2-2 with Ashdod SC on Saturday, failing to win for the fourth time in its past six matches.
With 15 matches still to play in the league, Beersheba, which was fortunate not to find itself 10 points back of first place after the yellow-and-blue was held to a 3-3 draw by Maccabi Netanya on Sunday, still maintains an outside chance of closing on Maccabi and Ironi Kiryat Shmona, which is two points off the lead.
Nevertheless, even Beersheba coach Elisha Levy admitted that his team can’t realistically be thinking about winning the league title as things currently stand.
“I don’t think we should be talking about the title race because it is currently irrelevant,” he explained. “Everyone keeps looking at Maccabi Tel Aviv and for the 100th time I’ll say that is a mistake and we must only focus on ourselves.
We threw away the game in Ashdod and will now turn our focus to the cup.”
Beersheba lifted the cup for the one and only time in club history in 1997, with its two league championships coming in 1975 and 1976.
Despite only eking out 1-0 wins over Maccabi Herzliya of the National League and Hapoel Ra’anana to reach the lasteight, Levy’s team will be a firm favorite against Maccabi Yavne of the National League, especially as the quarterfinals will be played over two legs this season.
The second legs will be held in three weeks.
The change was seen as a measure aimed at helping the big clubs avoid upsets and at least reach the semifinals.
However, only four of the 14 Premier League clubs even made it to the last eight, with Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem among the teams knocked out earlier than expected.
Yavne beat Bnei Sakhnin 1-0 in the round of 32, but has achieved little success in league action this season, currently sitting in 10th place in the National League after going seven matches without a win before last Friday’s 2-1 victory over Upper Nazareth.
There will be at least one National League team in the semis, with Hapoel Kfar Saba hosting Ahi Nazareth on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, Maccabi Petah Tikva visits Hapoel Afula on the National League.
The tie-of-the-round will begin on Wednesday when Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
Before they turn their attention to their showdown in the league next Monday, the Premier League’s top two will be vying for a first-leg advantage ahead of the return leg at Bloomfield.
Maccabi, which is playing in the quarterfinals for the first time since last winning the cup in 2005, is aiming to become the first team to claim the local treble after already lifting the Toto Cup earlier this season.
Coach Pako Ayestaran is certainly treating the cup more seriously than his predecessors, resting star midfielder Eran Zahavi and defender Eitan Tibi on Sunday to keep them fresh for the meetings with current cup holder Kiryat Shmona.