In most major soccer leagues, the league champions are usually pulled from a small cabal of high-revenue and high-spending clubs (fans of MLB small-market teams no doubt understand this imperfect system). In England, it has become the Chelsea/Arsenal/Man City/Man United boys club (although this year Leicester City has crashed the party) and looking across the continent, it’s the same story, as in Spain it’s usually a Barca/Real dogfight with occasionally an Atletico Madrid or Valencia butting in, and in France it’s PSG, Lyon, and Marseille usually three-way battle for league glory year in and year out. The same narrative even plays out in smaller nations, as FC Basel dominates the Swiss Super League, FC Red Bull Salzburg wins the Austrian Bundesliga, and the Celtic is now an annual lock to win the Scottish Premier League with Rangers still mired in relegation. Other examples abound.
With big money at stake, well-resourced clubs spend to the gills to lock in their places in the top of the leagues, as those top spots guarantee Champions League qualification and the multimillion-Euro payouts that come with them, and pay a little less attention to the domestic cup competitions. After all, a club like Chelsea would much rather rest their stars in Capital One Cup action to get them fresh for a Champions League group stage game. This, more often than not, allows for upsets to happen in cup play, and gives lesser sides the chance to knock off one of the superclubs and etch their names on the trophies- Wigan’s FA Cup win in 2012, Portsmouth’s FA Cup win in 2008, and Guingamp’s 2014 Coupe de France win being classic examples.
Here’s a quick look at some of the domestic cup action that’s been going on, and of course we’ll start in Israel.
In Israel, there will be no repeat of last year’s Treble for Maccabi Tel Aviv, as the reigning titleholders were eliminated early on in the Toto Cup competition, the domestic season taking a back seat to their deeply disappointing Champions League campaign. With the Round of 16 now set in the State Cup, though, there are some interesting fixtures on the schedule that will whittle the field down to the final 8 for the quarterfinal round. Next Wednesday night at 7:00 (Israel time) Maccabi Petach Tikvah (3rd place in Ligat Ha’al) hosts Hapoel Be’er Sheva (1st place) in a clash of top-tier teams, and right afterwards a Haifa Derby between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Haifa takes center stage, and the national broadcast, as the crosstown rivals meet with a berth in the next round at stake.
In England, the Capital One Cup semifinal fixtures are halfway done, and underachieving Liverpool, mired in 9th place in the Premier League, holds a 1:0 advantage over Stoke heading into the return leg at Anfield this coming Tuesday. Should they hold serve at home, they will head to Wembley Stadium on February 28 on to face the winner of Manchester City and Everton (Everton is up 2:1 after the first leg at Goodison Park). Winning the Cup would bring a semblance of respectability to this year’s campaign, as winning the FA Cup seems more than a little unlikely and the EPL title is even further outside the realm of realistic expectation, so Jurgen Klopp should push for the hardware. A trophy would be Liverpool’s 9th League Cup title, and their first since 2012 when they beat Cardiff City on penalties. Relive that shootout below- I remember it well.
In other European domestic cup competitions there’s not a lot of drama. Barcelona has blazed through the Copa Del Rey in Spain with and holds a 2:1 quarterfinal advantage over Atletico Bilbao after the first away leg, and with Real Madrid’s expulsion from the tournament after using an ineligible player, it’s going to be two-horse race with them and Atletico Madrid looking for Copa glory. In Germany, Bayern Munich has laid waste to all rivals so far in the DFB-Pokal, and meets second-division Bochum in the quarterfinals next on February 10 in a game that is sure to be anticlimactic. Look for a showdown against Dortmund or Leverkusen in the final round. The Coppa Italia is also suspenseless, as AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Napoli all made the final four, and the Coupe de France in still in the Round of 32 as PSG looks to win the competition for the second straight year. Finally, in Britain, with the FA Cup third round replays now completed the Fourth Round opens up next weekend. A few clubs survived some Third Round scares to advance, and there are several interesting games on tap, including Aston Villa/Man City, Liverpool/West Ham, and Crystal Palace/Stoke. And a last note, coming back to Israeli soccer, is the final of the Toto Cup Ligat Ha’al taking place on February 2 in Netanya between Ironi Kiryat Shmonah and Maccabi Petach Tikvah. Kiryat Shmonah will be looking to win the competition for the third time since 2011, while Petach Tivkah is seeking its first win since 2005. While it’s not as prestigious as the State Cup (it has the same relationship that the Capital One Cup does to the FA Cup), it’s still worth over a million Shekels to the winning club.