One knows that something special has been witnessed when divine intervention is required to rationalize it.
“God’s hand rests on his shoulder,” was how Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Tal Ben-Haim breathlessly explained teammate’s Eran Zahavi’s Monday night hat-trick heroics.
Ben-Haim can hardly be blamed for resorting to the heavenly to try and put into words Zahavi’s performance in Maccabi’s remarkable 3-2 victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv in the derby at Bloomfield Stadium.
After all, it is only natural to be at a loss for words after a player singlehandedly mounts his team on his shoulders and leads them to a win against all odds with the final kick of the match.
Monday’s memorable showdown included every necessary ingredient to not only become an instant-classic, but to immediately be ranked among the greatest matches in Israeli soccer history.
The first Tel Aviv derby between Maccabi and Hapoel was played on February 25, 1928, more than three years before the local league was even established.
The yellow-and-blue and the Reds were meeting for the 143rd time since the establishment of the State of Israel on Monday, but as hard as one may search through the 142 previous editions, they are unlikely to find a more incredible derby affair.
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The start of the match was nothing exceptional, with both teams tentative, not wanting to make a crucial mistake which could decide the encounter.
That gaffe arrived in the 33rd minute, when Hapoel goalkeeper Boris Kleyman –making his first start for the side since December – turned what should have been an elementary save into a goal by allowing Zahavi’s seemingly non-threatening shot to roll between his hands and legs and into the back of the net.
Five minutes later, however, Hapoel was handed a lifeline.
Maccabi’s Rade Prica was sent off for striking Hapoel’s Bryan Gerzicich in the face and it took the Reds just five minutes to equalize through the prolific Omer Damari.
Hapoel dominated the possession against Maccabi’s 10 men in the second half, but created very few scoring opportunities.
Referee Eli Hakhmon came to its help when he controversially determined that Maccabi ‘keeper Juan Pablo had brought down Gili Vermut in the box.
Damari stepped up to the spot to score his league-leading 21st goal of the season, giving Hapoel a 2-1 lead in the 87th minute and seemingly securing the side its first win in the derby since the start of last season.
However, what was about to unfold couldn’t be scripted.
In Maccabi’s first surge forward after renewing the game – and seconds after Ben-Haim came on as a substitute – the striker was nudged over in the box by Orel Dgani.
Zahavi coolly converted the spot kick to level the score at 2-2 in the 89th minute, breaking Hapoel hearts and likely giving the yellow-and-blue a precious point in the title race.
But Zahavi wasn’t done.
With the third and final minute of stoppage time about to end, Dgani sent his pass woefully wayward and Zahavi picked up the ball, laid it off for Barak Badash before receiving it back on the edge of the box and firing an accurate effort into the bottom left corner with the final kick of the night.
Maccabi’s entire bench, including coach Paulo Sousa, raced onto the pitch to embrace Zahavi in front of the yellow-and-blue fans, who like everyone else couldn’t quite comprehend what they had just witnessed.
Having thought their team was about to lose in the derby for the first time in five matches and remain just four points clear of Hapoel Beersheba in the standings, they couldn’t believe the unbelievable stroke of events.
Their nightmare had turned into a dream within five minutes, their side triumphing in the most amazing of fashions for its fifth straight derby win, opening a seven-point gap at the top with 10 games to play.
“What a game. What a derby. What emotions. This is the best football gets,” exclaimed Sousa.
“You won’t believe me, but after we equalized at 2-2 I told Badash, ‘please get me another ball, I am going to score another goal’,” said Zahavi. “We really believed we could do it. We are experiencing an amazing season and we hope it continues.”
Zahavi netted his first career hattrick and became just the third player – and first since Eli Driks in the 1992/93 season – to score three goals in a Tel Aviv derby.
Zahavi only joined Maccabi from Italian club Palermo last January, but has already left an indelible mark on the club’s folklore. He scored six times in the team’s final eight matches of last season to help the yellow-andblue to its first Premier League title in 10 years.
He has also been the catalyst behind Maccabi’s truly remarkable run this term, scoring 18 goals in 25 league appearances to date. The midfielder has led the defending champion to 21 wins from 26 games in total, including 15 victories over its past 17 encounters, netting 12 goals in the side’s last 14 contests.
He is currently the epitome of an unstoppable force in sports.
No Maccabi or Hapoel fan will ever forget Monday’s match, and neither will most neutral observers.
It was the quintessence of what makes sports so special.
The emotional rollercoaster left those in attendance with memories of a lifetime.
The fact that it is so difficult to put into words doesn’t make it any less extraordinary, but rather the opposite.
And to think that, due to the quirks of the schedule, there is another derby just next week.
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