Ironi Kiryat Shmona ’s Ahed Azam (left) and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Omri Ben-Harush are set to clash once more tonight when their teams meet in the first leg of the State Cup quarterfinals in Kiryat Shmona..
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ironi Kiryat Shmona look set to battle for the Premier League title until the end of the season.
However, Israel’s top two teams will be entering their showdown in the first leg of the State Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday on the back of their worst run of results this season.
For the first time in more than three years, Maccabi has gone three consecutive matches without a win in the league, after suffering a shock 2-0 defeat to Hapoel Haifa at Sammy Ofer Stadium on Saturday.
The two-time defending champion remained in first place, but only because Kiryat Shmona could only manage a 1-1 draw at home against Hapoel Ra’anana, cutting the gap to a single point.
Kiryat Shmona, which claimed the cup for the first time in club history last season, has won just one of its past five games, although it has also only lost once over that stretch.
Despite the recent poor streak, Kiryat Shmona coach Barak Bachar has hardly faced any criticism, with the expectations from his team increasing as the season has progressed, but still nowhere near as high as at Maccabi. On the other hand, the mini-crisis in Tel Aviv has turned up the heat on yellow-and-blue coach Pako Ayestaran, with reports already surfacing that the Spaniard will not continue at the club regardless of how the season ends.
Maccabi, which hasn’t won the cup since 2005, has still got a shot at becoming the first team to win the local treble after already lifting the Toto Cup earlier this season.
Tel Aviv needed a Barak Badash equalizer five minutes from time to draw 1-1 against Kiryat Shmona in league action at Bloomfield Stadium last Monday, ensuring it remained in first place.
Kiryat Shmona had taken the lead in the 10th minute through Vova Brown and looked to be heading to a memorable win thanks to some inspired defending.
However, Maccabi was finally rewarded for its dominance in the 85th minute, with Badash heading in from close range against his former team.
It was evident from the start that Kiryat Shmona was more than happy to allow Maccabi to control the possession and Bachar is set to use a similar game-plan on Wednesday, although not to such an extreme.
On Saturday, Tel Aviv dropped to its worst defeat of the season at lowly Hapoel Haifa.
Maccabi also lost Nikola Mitrovic to a red card in stoppage time, meaning he will miss Wednesday’s first leg, which was originally scheduled to take place two weeks ago, only to be postponed by stormy weather.
The second leg will be held at Bloomfield next Wednesday.
“The main reason for our recent results is that we are not playing as well as we were before,” said Pako, stating the obvious, before explaining why he remains confident his team can turn things around on Wednesday.
“Sometimes half a day is enough to make a change. The quality or technical ability don’t change in three days, for better or for worse. But first we have to be convinced about what we are doing.”
Maccabi captain Sheran Yeini rallied behind his coach and insisted that the team hasn’t played so badly recently despite its winless streak.
“We played really well in the draw against Kiryat Shmona,” he said.
“This is a tough time mentally, but we will break out of it.
“Both teams will not be thinking of the second leg. We will both be targeting a win.”