The Last Word: The romance of the Cup

There's nothing more exciting than a penalty shootout to decide a Cup match.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
There's nothing more exciting than a penalty shootout to decide a Cup match. We saw it at the end of Maccabi Haifa's State Cup duel with Betar Jerusalem last Wednesday, and then again in little Hapoel Ramat Gan's triumph over Premier League Hapoel Kfar Saba on Saturday. It was another classic weekend of Cup football in Israel. The fact that two teams from the far inferior National League beat their Premier League opponents while two more came very close proves that there is a depth to the beautiful game in this country that is rarely seen. But while the victories by the small clubs in last weekend's round of 16 State Cup matches alongside those of near-misses delighted the armchair fan, they also showcased a distinct lack of quality among what are supposed to be the best teams in the country. That Bnei Lod and Hapoel Marmorek nearly got over Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, respectively, was somewhat inexplicable having seen the two Premier League teams draw with and beat some top European teams this season. However, this was the State Cup, and anything can happen in a knockout competition. Even before the weekend began, the Israeli media had already decided that the standout match of the round was at Bnei Sakhnin's compact Doha Stadium, where the Arab city team duly obliged and matched Maccabi Tel Aviv at its own game over 90 minutes before overpowering the yellow-and-blue 2-0 in extra time. It was nice to see a lower team beat its opposition, but it was no massive surprise. Sakhnin was relegated only last season and has already bounced back by winning the National League title with more than a month of the season to go to earn promotion. It may have an image of a plucky little club, but the team is bankrolled by Betar Jerusalem owner Arkadi Gaydamak as well as charismatic owner Mazen Ghnaim and so had every chance of competing with a team like Maccabi Tel Aviv. What the match did show was the poor quality of Maccabi, the second- place team in the Premier League. Avi Nimni and his teammates created few opportunities and succumbed to what was clearly a superior team. It was a stupid mistake by the Tel Aviv defense that gave Sakhnin the lead in the 94th minute, and that Maccabi couldn't even score a single goal in two hours of play said something in itself. The match in Ramat Gan, where Premier League club Hapoel Kfar Saba was beaten in a Cup fixture for the second time in a week, was really the game of the day - a true Cinderella story. After losing the Toto Cup final to Maccabi Herzliya last Wednesday, Kfar Saba should have put in a much better performance against a team two divisions below it. But Eli Ohana's team is one of the more average clubs in the top division and its opponent, Hapoel Ramat Gan leads Liga Artzit by 11 points. Ramat Gan's first goal was reminiscent of Ben Sahar's first for Israel against Estonia a month ago, a striker's poaching chip over the goalie. And while Kfar Saba pulled one back, it was wonderful to see that it was the third division club that won out in a penalty shootout and kept the dream alive for Ramat Gan. The most romantic game of the day was in Marmorek. The team from the Liga Artzit held Hapoel Tel Aviv for 87 minutes in its tiny stadium with some clever play combined with a little over aggression. It was a pity that the little club couldn't overcome Tel Aviv, which finally scored through Nigerian Ibazito Ogabuna. National league's Bnei Lod went one further, taking former perennial champion Maccabi Haifa to extra time before letting in two goals. So, it's onwards and upwards with this week's draw for the quarterfinals. Four of the eight teams through to the next round are from outside the top division. Let's hope the romance continues.