Greens, Reds to clash for State Cup

Mac Haifa hands Netanya first loss in 17 matches; Hap TA overcomes K8 in other semi.

Rafaelov 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger and Adi Avishai)
Rafaelov 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger and Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will meet in the State Cup final for the first time ever on May 25 after coming through two dramatic semifinals at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Wednesday.
Haifa and Tel Aviv have won 18 cups between them, playing in 34 total finals since the inaugural competition in 1928. However, the two Israeli giants have surprisingly never faced each other in the final before, adding further intrigue to an already mouthwatering encounter between the two dominant forces in Israeli soccer in recent years.
Haifa, looking for its second double in club history and first since the 1990/91 season, survived a thriller against Maccabi Netanya on Wednesday, winning 3-2 thanks to Lior Rafaelov’s 69th-minute penalty.
“There is still no reason to celebrate yet,” said Haifa’s down-to-earth coach Elisha Levy, who needs one more league win to clinch the championship and wants to guide the Greens to their first cup since 1998.
“We have made an important step in the right direction after playing superbly. Haifa hasn’t won the cup in many years and it is about time we do it. We can’t wait for the final.”
Hapoel also had its work cut out for it in the first semi of the day, beating Ironi Kiryat Shmona 2-0 through another spectacular Eran Zahavi goal in the 80th minute and a Ben Sahar strike (87).
“We overcame a tricky match against a tough opponent, which we failed to beat in the league,” Hapoel coach Eli Gutman said. “We used the right tactics and I told my players that the team which has more counterattacks will win. Zahavi scored another goal for his collection and I’m very proud of all my players. We have come through a long and difficult season and I hope we can end it on a high.”
Kiryat Shmona coach Ran Ben-Shimon was understandably frustrated with the defeat.
“We lacked a little luck,” Ben-Shimon said. “Usually such close games are won by the team with more experience and I’m disappointed because I don’t like to lose.”
Haifa dominated the start of its semi, with Hemed terrorizing the Netanya defense.
The in-form striker twice came close to scoring an early opener, but his shots were off target, allowing Netanya to take a shock lead in the 30th minute.
Nir Nahum surged through the Haifa defense before completely miss-hitting his shot, only to see Firas Mugrabi tuck the ball beyond Nir Davidovich.
Sergiy Tretyak very nearly doubled Netanya’s lead six minutes later when his header almost caught Davidovich by surprise, but it was Haifa which would score next, just a minute later.
Eyal Meshumar floated the ball into the box and Hemed’s perfectly executed header gave ’keeper Carlos Arias no chance.
Eight minutes after the break, Yaniv Katan squandered a golden opportunity from the center of the box, but the Greens would have to wait just two more minutes to complete their comeback.
After a nice team move, Vladimir Dvalishvili turned in the box to score his 17th goal of the season.
However, Haifa’s lead wouldn’t last long.
Seidu Yahaya lunged at Tretyak’s feet in front of referee Menashe Mashiah and Ahmed Saba stepped up to convert the penalty and tie the score in the 60th minute.
Eight more minutes passed and Netanya returned the favor by gifting Haifa a spot kick.
Dele Yampolsky mistimed his tackle and brought down Rafaelov, who brushed himself off and sent Arias the wrong way to put Haifa back in the lead.
Netanya committed more players forward, desperate for the equalizer, but Haifa held on to advance to the final.
“We worked and fought and eventually achieved our goal,” Hemed said.
“I waited for my chance at the start of the season and now that I have got it I’m making the most of it.”
In the first semi at Ramat Gan, Hapoel continued its disappointing play from the league at the start of the game, allowing Kiryat Shmona to dictate the pace.
The northerners were far more threatening in the early stages and came centimeters away from scoring the breakthrough in the 21st minute.
Hapoel’s defense was caught napping on a Kiryat Shmona corner kick and Ofir Hemo should have really found the back of the net rather than the post.
Tel Aviv finally began to find its rhythm in the final 10 minutes of the half, but squandered two glorious chances to take the lead.
Seven minutes from the break, Toto Tamuz had time and space at the center of the Kiryat Shmona box, but he fluffed his effort and Ben-Shimon’s team was spared.
Four minutes later, goalkeeper Guy Haimov came to Kiryat Shmona’s rescue, acrobatically saving Zahavi’s attempt.
Wiyam Amashe recorded the first chance of the second half when he fired straight at Hapoel ’keeper Vincent Enyeama, but both teams created little following the interval and the match seemed destined to go into extra time.
Enter Zahavi.
Once more Tel Aviv’s ultimate winner came to his team’s rescue in its hour of need, scoring with a sensational bicycle kick 10 minutes from time.
Sahar secured the victory seven minutes later after a Hapoel counterattack and gave the Reds hope of ending the season on a sweet note.
“We needed a win and it doesn’t matter how we did it,” Sahar said. “We deserved this win against a tough opponent.
“We are tired after playing almost 50 matches this season, including in the Champions League, but we still managed to win and we want to lift at least one title this season.”