State Cup Soccer: Netanya out to stop Haifa in semis

Matthaus's men look to end Levy's double dream; Betar faces Hakoach in 1st game of doubleheader.

Maccabi Netanya 298.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Netanya 298.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Maccabi Haifa's pursuit of a second league and cup double in club history enters its final stretch on Wednesday night. Haifa faces Maccabi Netanya in the second of a doubleheader of State Cup semifinals at National Stadium in Ramat Gan, five days before it hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv in a match that could all but settle the league title race. Elisha Levy's team leads the Premier League standings by two points, with three matches remaining in the season, but the coach will be urging his players to put aside next Monday's crunch showdown with Hapoel and first take care of business against Netanya, which is looking for its first title in 26 years. Haifa, which claimed its one and only double in the 1990/91 season, has lost only four times in the league this season, but two of those defeats came against coach Lothar Matthaus's Netanya, which also knocked the Greens out of the cup in the round of 16 last season. "Every match against Netanya is difficult, but our last two losses to them will not have any affect on the outcome of Wednesday's match," Haifa's Columbian midfielder John Culma said. "What makes this match especially tough is the fact that Netanya no longer has any chance of winning the league championship and will be giving its all to salvage something from this season by reaching the cup final." Netanya owner Daniel Jammer, who will likely be cutting his investment in the club next season, hosted the players for dinner on Monday and demanded they repay him by winning the cup. "I had a dream to win the championship this season, but we weren't mentally ready for it," Jammer told his players. "I invested over $4 million in the club this season and fulfilled all my obligations. I expect you to fulfill your obligations to the club and I want you to do everything to win the cup." In the first semifinal of Wednesday's doubleheader, Betar Jerusalem will be a massive favorite to move within one win of defending its title when it plays Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan. Since it came back from a goal down three times in its ninth round tie at Ironi Kiryat Shmona, Betar has cruised in the cup and complacency will be coach Reuven Atar's biggest problem on Wednesday. "Hakoach is in excellent form in recent weeks. We're treating them with respect and we will make sure we won't be surprised," said Atar, whose Betar team defeated Hakoach in all three of their league meeting this season by a combined goal difference of 11-2. "My players are experienced enough to know how to play at these kinds of events. The result of the match will depend on us, as it does against any opponent we face." Hakoach's main priority at the moment is to avoid relegation from the Premier League, with the team currently in 11th position, two points above rock-bottom Kiryat Shmona and three points under Hapoel Petah Tikva. Nevertheless, there's no doubt Ramat Gan will give Betar a fight on Wednesday, a fact not lost on Jerusalem forward Barak Itzhaki. "All we've got left now is the cup and we're facing a very difficult match against Hakoach," Itzhaki said. "I think the fact we defeated them three times this season could prove to be our biggest obstacle as those matches count for nothing ahead of Wednesday. We're treating this match as if it were the final."