Hapoel Ashkelon 298.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Tel Aviv will be a massive favorite to lift its second straight State Cup Wednesday night against National League club Hapoel Ashkelon, which will be making its first-ever final appearance at Ramat Gan's National Stadium.
Tel Aviv, which defeated Bnei Yehuda 1-0 in last year's final to claim the cup for the sixth time in its history, is looking to join Maccabi Tel Aviv as the only club to win the cup in consecutive seasons more than once.
The team cruised through four rounds of the competition on its way to the final, defeating Hapoel Jerusalem, Hapoel Marmorek, Bnei Sakhnin and Ashdod SC by a combined goal difference of 8-0.
"We've been through a rough period and tomorrow is the match of our lives," Tel Aviv midfielder Salim Toama said on Tuesday. "This is the most important match of our season and it will determine whether this year is a successful one or not."
Captain Yossi Abuksis, who's been missing from the team's starting lineup in recent weeks because of injury, is expected to be in Nir Levin's starting 11 against Ashkelon.
"We can't underestimate Ashkelon and we must respect them," Abuksis said. "In recent years, there have been many surprises in the cup and we don't want to go down as a side that was shocked in the final. We're favorites on paper, but that will mean nothing if we don't show our quality on the field."
Ashkelon has had an easy route to the final and will face a Premier League side for the first time in the competition on Wednesday. In identical fashion to its opponent, Ashkelon has also yet to concede a goal in the cup, defeating Hapoel Beersheba, Maccabi Hashikma/Ramat Hen, Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Ramat Gan by a combined goal difference of 7-0.
Cup fever has gripped Ashkelon since the team reached the final and the local municipality has hired trains and more than 20 buses to take fans to Ramat Gan free of charge.
"Everybody in town is excited and we're aware of the importance of this match," Ashkelon coach Miro BenShimon said. "We're facing a big club, but we will do our best and try and get the win."
Ashkelon's players could be forgiven for being distracted on Wednesday, as the team is currently in the National League's relegation zone with two matches remaining in the season.
Nevertheless, Ashkelon's players realize that the match against Tel Aviv is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of them.
"This is the greatest moment of my career," Ashkelon player Roei Sabag said. "We made history by reaching the final and I hope we don't disappoint our fans on Wednesday. We will need to be composed and give our heart and soul to compensate for Tel Aviv's superior quality.
"I'd prefer to lose the final and avoid relegation from the National League, but we're not coming to Ramat Gan to lose."
On TV: State Cup Final, Hapoel Ashkelon vs Hapoel Tel Aviv (live at 8:40 p.m. on Channel 10).
IFA reduces Betar punishment
Betar Jerusalem will be able to begin the 2007/08 season at Teddy Stadium after an Israeli Football Association tribunal reduced the team's punishment for crowd disturbances on Tuesday.
However, the club will not be able to host Maccabi Netanya at home in the final match of the season after the IFA only partially accepted the team's appeal, cutting it by half.
Betar, which hosted Hapoel Tel Aviv at Winter Stadium in Ramat Gan on Sunday, had originally been sentenced to play four home matches away from Teddy and in front of empty stands for its part in the May 6 stampede.
"We are very disappointed," Betar spokesman Oded Zargari said. "It was very important for us to celebrate with our fans in the final match of the season."