The Last Word: On this form, can Betar deal with the cup final pressure?

Gaydamak's team going for a first ever league and cup double, starting Tuesday at Ramat Gan against Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Betar 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Betar 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Over in England, the FA Cup final taking place next weekend holds little interest for anyone other than the few fans of Portsmouth and Cardiff City soccer clubs. Here in Israel it is a different story altogether. On Tuesday night Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv will face off in a State Cup final of epic proportions. The game will be a repeat of the 1999 and 2000 finals, both of which were won by Hapoel on penalties. This time the Jerusalem fans expect much, much, more. This is the chance to get one over on their old rivals, and make history at the same time. There is an overriding assumption that the team in yellow and black has practically wrapped up the league title already and this is its best chance to win a first State Cup for 19 years and a first league and cup double in the 72-year history of the club. Rarely has there been a team under so much pressure to win a cup game as Betar has been under since it beat Maccabi Netanya 1-0 in extra time in the semifinals last month. The word intense doesn't do justice expectations that have been imposed on the current league champion. Over the last few weeks, and even before the semifinals at Ramat Gan, everyone in Jerusalem was focusing on the cup and the joy it could bring to the massive Betar support. But the fans need to be careful not to assume anything. Hapoel Tel Aviv may have had one of the worst seasons in its history, but it won in the league last week and could well get a victory against Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday. And the team in red is under hardly any pressure for the final. Not only is it the underdog but has already guaranteed a place in Europe by getting to the cup final itself. Meanwhile, Betar is not only going into this game following the debacle of the pitch invasion at the end of the Herzliya game, the consequent punishment ruling and the appeal which reversed that punishment. Its recent form has been far from impressive, having not won in the league since beating Hapoel Kfar Saba on March 22. The Jerusalem team that played in the defeat at Ashdod on Monday was weak and apathetic, walking around the pitch without a care in the world and letting Haim Revivo's team walk all over it. This Saturday Betar has to play a Bnei Yehuda team which is on the up and aiming to escape relegation. Lose that one and it will enter Tuesday's final in a downbeat mood with every chance that it could all fall apart. And I am not just referring to the possibility of Betar not winning the cup. The entire Israeli soccer community seems to think there is no way Betar will not win the league. Itzhak Schum's team currently has a nine-point lead at the top of the standings and has five games left to play (including the abandoned Herzliya match which is being replayed on May 20.) While it is extremely unlikely Itzhak Schum's team will slip up in all five, there is every chance it could lose at least three or four. In fact, if Ironi Kiryat Shmona, which plays at Jerusalem in the penultimate game of the season, hadn't secured its Premier League future with a superb first season in the top flight then Betar's situation would be much more precarious than it is right now. Bnei Yehuda is fighting for survival, as is Herzliya. Maccabi Netanya, which it plays next weekend is battling for second place and wants to prove its worth and Bnei Sakhnin, which visits Teddy on the last day of the season, will always play its heart out and has already defeated Betar in Jerusalem this season. It's a big week for everyone involved in Betar and Hapoel Tel Aviv; the question is who will be able to cope with the pressure.