Moving and shaking on and off the pitch - commentary

Lots of action between Mac TA’s dramatic victory in Haifa and Bachar’s resigning from Beersheba

Outgoing Hapoel Beersheba coach Barak Bachar (left) and Maccabi Tel Aviv star Yonatan Cohen (right) were the talk of Israeli soccer this week, albeit for different reasons. (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Outgoing Hapoel Beersheba coach Barak Bachar (left) and Maccabi Tel Aviv star Yonatan Cohen (right) were the talk of Israeli soccer this week, albeit for different reasons.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
This past week saw two huge stories hit the headlines in the Israeli soccer world after a fairly quiet and dull first half of the season.
The first took place in shocking fashion on Monday evening when Hapoel Beersheba head coach Barak Bachar handed in his resignation to club owner Alona Barkat.
The second occurred late that same night when Maccabi Tel Aviv was victorious in the Israeli Clasico at Maccabi Haifa’s Sammy Ofer Stadium in dramatic fashion with a 4-3 late winner deep into injury time by Yonatan Cohen.
Both events rocked soccer fans across the country and made a massive mark on the sports landscape that will have residual effects for years to come.
Let’s look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa clash first:
In what was no doubt the game of the season, the yellow-and-blue found a way to take home all three points against a much improved and very game Greens squad. After a first half that saw Vladimir Ivic’s side take a 1-0 lead, the floodgates burst open with six second-half goals that sent the fans in the stadium and those watching throughout the country reeling.
Maccabi took a 2-0 lead, but Haifa stormed back with a pair of quick goals to draw even at two apiece. Budding superstar and enigmatic forward Yonatan Cohen scored off his own rebound after a missed penalty soon thereafter, but Haifa substitute Mohamed Abu Fani found the back of the goal very late in regulation time and it looked like the two squads would split the points.
However, Cohen had other ideas as he scored during injury time, ripped off his shirt and sent the yellow-and-blue faithful into a frenzy as the comparisons to superstar Eran Zahavi began to shower the 23-year-old striker.
Back in the 2013/14 season, Zahavi scored a pair of late goals to win a highly competitive derby over Hapoel Tel Aviv at the old Bloomfield Stadium, so it would only be natural that the fans would be anointing a new king to Zahavi’s throne almost four years after his departure to China.
“Eran is an amazing player and I really like him, but I’m Yonatan Cohen and I play my own game,” Cohen stated adamantly following the clash.
And it’s true, Cohen does play his own game and is undergoing an education and transformation under Ivic this season. Cohen had been in and out of the coach’s doghouse this campaign. After scoring his fifth goal of the season against Hapoel Tel Aviv on Matchday 12, Ivic kept him out of the squad for two straight contests without any explanation to the public.
It is believed that he didn’t play those two games because of a gesture he made after his derby goal and Ivic was teaching his pupil a lesson, although neither have confirmed that was the cause.
Apparently the lesson was learned as Cohen came back with a vengeance. Looking back at the 23-year-old’s career to date, Cohen always seems to play with a purpose or with a chip on his shoulder. Whether it was when Maccabi loaned him to Bnei Yehuda and he scored one of the penalties in the State Cup final to help his team hoist the trophy over the yellow-and-blue, or when he scored a crucial strike in European qualifying trying to stave off a loan from Maccabi, the talented Cohen has always been the center of the storm.
Even entering this game, Cohen changed his hair style to that of NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson to show a certain look and attitude that no one would mess with him, and no one did. With eight goals and six assists this season, Cohen has left the fans thirsting for more.
“I just have no words to describe the feeling after this win,” he said as he celebrated with his teammates and some of the Tel Aviv fans in the stands.
“I saw in their eyes they were with me in the frenzy of victory. I just hope that I will be able to experience such a feeling again in the future. I dedicate this win to the fans and am so happy that I was able to help the club to victory,” he said.
The other big local soccer storyline this week was Bachar’s resignation as Hapoel Beersheba’s coach.
Bachar came down south from Kiryat Shmona in 2015 after winning the State Cup with the northern squad and promptly won three straight Israeli league titles, breaking up Maccabi Tel Aviv’s monopoly on the league.
After failing to win the league championship last year, Beersheba has struggled this campaign and although the team is firmly entrenched in fourth place with 29 points, it is way off from the table-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv, which has 43 points.
After falling to Hapoel Tel Aviv earlier this week, Bachar had enough.
Was Bachar’s message not getting through to his players? Was he managing his squad as best as possible given it talent? Or was it just time for Bachar to go and find his next challenge? All in all, it was a combination of all three that saw Bachar throw in the towel and step down.
It’s rare for a coach to last more than four years in this league and in Bachar’s case he leaves sporting the highest winning percentage of any Israeli coach in league history, with 64.2% after managing 261 contests. Behind Bachar one can find some of the greats – Avram Grant, Jerry Beit Halachmi, Dror Kashtan and Eli Gutman. That’s not a bad list to be associated with.
With Beersheba, his percentage was even higher – 68.7% - which in this day and age is astronomical.
Where will Bachar end up next? There is talk that he will be the next Israel national team coach should the blue-and-white not advance to the European Championships this summer, and there is also talk that he wants to try and ply his trade abroad.
But for now, his departure saw Yossi Abuksis move from Bnei Yehuda to fill Bachar’s shoes in Beersheba and the return of former Maccabi Haifa, Beersheba and national team coach Elisha Levy to the fold as he takes over for Abuksis.
With all of the action witnessed on and off of the field this week, hopes abound that this is just the beginning of the fun and games which Israeli soccer fans are used to from seasons past as we head into the second half of play.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]