On a chilly Sunday evening in Haifa, Maccabi Haifa pulled out a 3:2 win over crosstown rivals Hapoel Haifa in the 123rd Haifa Derby in a game that ended regular season for both teams. And as great good fortune would have it, I happened to be in Haifa this week and took in the game from the stands of the Sammy Ofer Stadium.
The game was a story of two halves, as Maccabi controlled possession for the better part of the first half. Dutch striker Glynor Plet headed in a goal in the 17th minute for his 8th goal of the season, and midfielder Jaber Ata doubled the lead in the 40th, cleverly driving his kick into the ground and bouncing it over the keeper and into the Hapoel net. Fan favorite Yossi Benayoun came close to rewarding his adoring fans with a goal, but missed two chances to add to the lead and the game entered halftime 2:0
The second half was the opposite, though. Hapoel’s halftime substitutions and formation change, coupled with Maccabi sitting back and taking their foot off the gas on offense, created countless chances for the underdogs. Time after time, Hapoel’s strikers went wide and Maccabi’s defenders could not figure out how to stop the ball. The lead was cut to 2:1 in the 49th minute after a lovely finish by midfielder Hiasham Kiwan, and Taleb Tawatha’s own goal 19 minutes later on a dangerous cross in the box leveled the score.
Maccabi found their attacking game after that and grabbed the eventual game winner on a terrible own goal from defender Ofek Fishler in the 76th minute, who gifted the goal to Maccabi when his attempt at kicking a ball out of play went terribly wrong. The blunder also had the misfortune of taking place right in front of Maccabi’s “Ultras” fans, so you can imagine the taunts and songs that immediately ensued. I’ll just say that they were so NSFW that can’t even begin to describe them, and the card issued to Hapoel’s Hanan Maman for a reckless tackle from behind in extra time didn’t help, either.
The all-time series now stands at 64 wins for Maccabi, 29 wins for Hapoel, and 30 draws, and recent history has been particularly unkind to Hapoel; in the six Derbies played at Sammy Ofer since it opened, Maccabi has won all six and outscored their rivals 16-5. Luckily for Hapoel, the two teams will not meet again until next year…although as they are now 2 points below a relegation position they will need to improve to stay in the Ligat Ha’al for 2016-17.
With the win, Maccabi jumped over Bnei Sakhnin and Hapoel Ra’anana into 4th place on the eve of the playoffs, but they sit 3 points back of 3rd-place Beitar Jerusalem with 10 games to go.