Maccabi Tel Aviv star midfielder Eran Zahavi..
(photo credit: MACCABI TEL AVIV WEBSITE)
Only a stunning upset at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Wednesday night stands in the way of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Beersheba booking a showdown in next month’s State Cup final.
The Premier League’s two top sides face opponents from the National League making their first semifinal appearances, with Maccabi playing Ahi Nazareth after Beersheba comes up against Hapoel Afula in the first installment of the doubleheader.
The teams are playing for a place in the cup final which will be held at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on May 20.
Tel Aviv is aiming to reach its first cup final since 2005 and has its sights set on completing an unprecedented treble of local titles. The yellow-and-blue has already lifted the Toto Cup, Israeli soccer’s second cup competition, earlier this season and holds a 10-point gap over Beersheba at the top of the league standings with five matches to play.
“We know that we have an opportunity to make history,” said Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran. “We are going to be really focused and determined. We know that it is also an opportunity for them to make history, so this will be a game between two teams determined to reach the final.”
Nazareth, which is seventh in the National League, has already knocked out two top flight clubs on its way to the semis, beating Maccabi Netanya in the round of 32 and Ashdod SC in the last 16.
“They were built to get promoted,” said Ayestaran. “This will be a good opportunity for them. It is going to be a challenge for us.”
Around 5,000 Nazareth fans are expected to make the journey to Jerusalem.
“We are feeling a bit of pressure as this is our first time in the semis, but I hope we can reach the final,” said Nazareth’s Anas Dabbur, brother of former Maccabi forward and Israeli international Munas Dabbur. “We can surprise Maccabi. In soccer anything is possible. We have already overcome Netanya and Ashdod and we can also knock out Maccabi Tel Aviv.”
After losing to Ironi Kiryat Shmona in last year’s semis, Beersheba is desperate to make amends and reach a first final since 2003. Beersheba hasn’t won any title since lifting the cup in 1997 and has had one eye on the semis since advancing to the last four almost two months ago.
Elisha Levy’s team will have to manage without captain Elyaniv Barda on Wednesday after he was forced to leave Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Ironi Kiryat Shmona with a muscle strain. Barda netted the equalizer four minutes after coming on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, but limped off the field three minutes later.
Midfielder Maor Melikson, who was rested against Kiryat Shmona, will return to the starting lineup and will hope to hit top form at the right time following a disappointing season.
“I promise we will do our all to meet the expectations of the fans,” said Barda.
“I’m convinced that we will reach the final.”
Afula is fourth in the second division and boasts one of the most dangerous strikers in Israel in 20-year-old Lanry Kahinda. The Nigerian, who is on a season- long loan at Afula from Maccabi Tel Aviv, scored a hat-trick in 11 minutes in his team’s 4-2 win over Maccabi Yavne in league action on Friday, taking his tally for the season to 28 goals in all competitions, including 19 in the league.
“This isn’t just another game and of course the feeling is different,” said Afula coach Yaron Hochenboim. “This is our first time at this stage and we can sense the excitement. There are big gaps between the teams, but anything can happen in one match.”
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