Local Soccer: Maccabi Haifa wins the league

Coach Levy delighted after Greens beat Netanya 2-0 to clinch championship

maccabi haifa champions 248 88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
maccabi haifa champions 248 88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
It wasn't a classic game. But it's been far from a classic year for Maccabi Haifa, despite claiming its 11th league championship on Saturday night. Elisha Levy's team did what it needed to do to clinch the Israeli Premier League title for the first time since 2006, beating Maccabi Netanya 2-0 away from home with a goal in each half from Thembinkosi Fanteni and Biram Kiyal. Haifa's fans erupted in jubilation at the final whistle, but will know that there is a long way to go in the rebuilding process if the club is to produce a team which can match the side which qualified for the Champions League group stage in 2002. Despite this, first-year coach Elisha Levy was full of optimism, claiming the club has "a strong base of players" and will do its best in Europe next season. The result ended Betar Jerusalem's two-year hold on the league championship with the team from the capital currently in third position after a strong 3-0 win over Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday. Betar's performance will give hope to its legions of fans which will descend on Ramat Gan Stadium for the State Cup final on Tuesday evening where Jerusalem will attempt to prevent Maccabi Haifa winning an historic double. "This is the greatest accomplishment of my career, but we are only looking forward. It isn't often that you get the chance to win both the league and the cup," Levy said. Levy was a surprise choice to take over from Roni Levy in the summer. But, while Maccabi rarely played anything other than average soccer, Elisha Levy proved his worth over the course of the season by getting the best out of his older players including Yaniv Katan and Gustavo Boccoli, while bedding in youngsters such as Kiyal, Lior Rafaelov and, perhaps most impressively, 17year-old striker Eyal Golasa who played 25 games in his first season in the first team and has shown glimpses of class throughout this term. In other games on Saturday, Ironi Kiryat Shmona stayed in second-from bottom spot after a 0-0 draw at Bnei Yehuda, Maccabi Tel Aviv's late-season revival continued with a 3-0 victory at Roni Levy's Maccabi Petah Tikva and Ashdod SC beat Hapoel Petah Tikva 1-0. The penultimate round of the season will be completed on Monday when Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan. On Saturday Haifa was far too efficient for the Netanya side which posed little threat in its last home game of the season. As has been the case for much of the last nine months, Netanya coach Lothar Matthaus was left fuming on the sidelines as he watched his team throw away the game. The opening goal came in the 12th minute, and appeared to puncture any hope Netanya had had of preventing Haifa celebrating the championship in its stadium. Fanteni passed to Rafaelov who tried to put Katan through but goalkeeper Liran Strauber dived in with his legs and pushed the ball away only to see the South African striker knock in the rebound for his 11th goal of the campaign. Netanya's best chance of the half came in the 26th minute when Itai Shechter drove at the Haifa defense before releasing the ball to Dedi BenDayan on the left side of the box. The Israel national team defender released a powerful shot but it went just wide of Nir Davidovitch's goal. Chances were few and far between over the 90 minutes, although Shechter himself came close to tieing the scores in the 67th minute when he headed past the goal from a free kick. But it was the visiting team which grabbed another goal, doubling its lead with 15 minutes left through a Kiyal strike which appeared to be well offside. Katan lobbed in a free kick from the left and Kiyal met it well to volley home. The victory put an end to the difficult period Haifa had experienced under Roni Levy, when it finished in fifth place both in 2007 and 2008 while Betar took the title. "I am the happiest man in the world," Elisha Levy said. "This is my first championship. Maccabi Haifa is the land of opportunity."