Immediate Toto Cup title test for Balbul

Mac Haifa’s new coach gets abrupt awakening as he debuts in Netanya final against Mac TA.

Maccabi Haifa’s coach, Marco Balbul  (photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Maccabi Haifa’s coach, Marco Balbul
(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Marco Balbul aims to guide Maccabi Haifa to its first title since 2011 in his debut at the helm of the team on Wednesday night.
Three days after replacing Aleksandar Stanojevic and taking the reins, Balbul will lead Haifa out when it faces Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of the Toto Cup, Israeli soccer’s second most prestigious cup competition, in Netanya.
Balbul certainly would have preferred not playing the two-time regaining Premier League champion in his first game as the coach of the Greens. However, he has little to lose on Wednesday, with Haifa the clear underdog.
“We need to get back to the basics,” said Balbul. “I really believe in balanced play between attack and defense and that is something which we need to not only do in the Toto final but also in the future.”
The 47-year-old played for Haifa for almost all of his career, starting in 1986 and ending with his retirement in 2002. Balbul began his coaching career as an assistant in Haifa before going on to guide Hapoel Beersheba, Bnei Sakhnin, Maccabi Petah Tikva and Sakhnin once more last season.
Balbul recorded his greatest success with Sakhnin last term, guiding the team to a sixth-place finish. However, he will be facing at Haifa a challenge of a completely different magnitude.
Balbul said he expected to receive an offer from a big club sooner rather than later and insisted that he knows exactly how to kick-start the team’s season.
“We have a good squad with very talented players and we need to find the way to get them back on track,” Balbul added. “We will need time and patience.”
Balbul plans to make several changes to the team’s lineup, with Dekel Keinan to return to the center of the defense.
Haifa captain Yossi Benayoun, who will retain his place in the starting 11, said he hopes to begin repaying the fans for their faith with a Toto Cup triumph.
“We have disappointed them since the start of the season, but they continued to come, filling the stadium and cheering us on,” he said.
“I have never won the Toto Cup or the State Cup and I hope we can take both this season. We will need to excel in the final because we haven’t played well in recent matches. I hope and believe we can win.”
While it has dominated local league action over the past two seasons, Maccabi Tel Aviv has recorded little success in the cup competitions.
The yellow-and-blue’s most recent State Cup triumph was in 2005, with its last Toto Cup title coming in 2009.
Maccabi hosts challenger Hapoel Beersheba in a crucial Premier League showdown on Monday and coach Pako Ayestaran admitted that he is more concerned with his team’s performance than the final result on Wednesday.
“For me the most important thing is to continue to play at the level we expect,” he explained. “When you are used to winning it becomes a habit and this is what we want to try to do.
I’m not really focused if we can win a trophy. This is a game and we try to win every game. But we try to win as a result of doing the right thing. It is not about thinking of the result but thinking of the process.”
Pako is likely to rotate his lineup, but star midfielder Eran Zahavi will obviously not lose his place.
After 17 consecutive league matches, Zahavi’s remarkable scoring streak ended in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hapoel Ra’anana. The midfielder had netted 25 goals over that stretch, 16 of them this season.
Zahavi’s run began in April 26 and he scored 35 league goals in the calender year, second in Europe only to Cristiano Ronaldo, who netted 38 La Liga goals for Real Madrid.
While Zahavi can no longer add to his league tally in 2014, he will be aiming to at least end the year in style with a goal in the Toto Cup and another title on his resume.
On TV: Toto Cup final: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Maccabi Haifa (live on Sport5 at 7:30 p.m.).