For soccer fans this is the most wonderful time of the year. The MLS season is about to kick off, the Champions League Round of 16 is halfway home, cup competitions across Europe are entering the final stages, and the European leagues are starting to eye the end of the season in the not-too-distant future. But why take the easy road and talk about Liverpool’s disappointing loss in the Capital One Cup final against Man City? Why revisit that horror? Instead, let us selfishly dive back into some storylines that only I probably care about.
Seagulls flying high again
After a terrible run of play in December and January, when they went over a month without scoring a goal, Brighton and Hove Albion have righted the ship and rocketed back into striking distance from the top of the League Championship table. With a 6-1-1 record over the past 8 games, including a 4:0 beat-down of Leeds United on Monday, the Seagulls record now stands at 17 wins, 12 draws, and 5 losses on the year, good for 63 points and fourth place on the table behind Burnley (18-11-5/65 pts), Hull City (19-7-7/64 pts), and Middlesbrough (19-7-7/64 pts). If Brighton keeps winning, the top of the table is still in play, and as readers of this blog undoubtedly know, the top two teams from the League Championship are automatically promoted to the Premier League, while teams 3-6 duke it out for the one remaining promotion spot. Israeli striker Tomer Hemed continues to dazzle, leading the team with 11 goals of the 49 scored by Brighton this season, and countryman Beram Kayal has also found the net for the Seagulls twice so far. 12 games remain on the league schedule, so let’s hope that’s all they will need to be promoted to the EPL for 2016-17. Check out Tomer Hemed celebrating a recent goal right here.
Ligat Ha’al playoff qualifiers are set
With 25 rounds concluded in the Ligat Ha’al season, only one weekend of play remains before the playoff and relegation rounds commence. After this weekend, the top six teams will enter the championship bracket, where they face off against each other over the final 10 weeks to crown a champion, while the bottom 8 teams will duke it out for the privilege of avoiding relegation. With a week to go, the playoff qualifiers are set, and there are no surprises at the top. Well, actually, that’s not entirely accurate, as Hapoel Beer Sheva at 20-3-2 and 63 points is 5 points clear of reigning champions Maccabi Tel Aviv (18-4-3, 58 pts), and look to be in the driver’s seat entering the playoff round. Beer Sheva is on a crazy hot streak, having gone 22-3-1 in all competitions since September, so it will take a little more than pluck for Maccabi Tel Aviv to make up that ground.
Outside of the top two sits Beitar Jerusalem, led by Maccabi Haifa castoff Itay Schechter, in 3rd place at 14-6-5/48 points, followed by Hapoel Ra’anana (10-6-9/39 pts), Bnei Sakhnin (10-5-10/35 pts) and Maccabi Haifa in 6th (9-8-8/35 pts). There’s a lot of soccer yet to be played, and in particular the deeply-rooted hatred between Beitar and Sakhnin is going to make for some compelling, if not scarily intense, soccer as we head towards the end of the season. The league champion will enter the Champions League qualification stages in July, and the 2nd and 3rd place teams, in addition to the State Cup champion, will enter the Europa League qualifying stages next summer as well, so there’s a lot to play for beyond just 1st place.
Round 26 takes place this weekend, and is highlighted by Sunday night’s Haifa Derby between Maccabi and Hapoel, and what do you know… who’s going to be in Haifa on Sunday night? Yours truly. And if I was able to finagle by way into the Champions League match in Haifa back in October, I do hope I can find a way into the Sammy Ofer on Sunday night as well. In other Week 26 action Hapoel Beer Sheva hosts Bnei Sakhnin in the northern Negev in a clash of Top-6 clubs.
And since you didn’t ask, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi leads the league in goals, as usual, with 26 on the season, and Hapoel Beer Sheva’s Elyaniv Barda is a distant second, with 13.
Israel’s State Cup: The Final Four
This week saw the conclusion of the quarterfinal fixtures in the Israeli State Cup, as the return legs took place on Monday and Tuesday all over Israel. Maccabi Tel Aviv disposed of Hapoel Kfar Saba 2:0 at home to advance 5:0 on aggregate, Bnei Sakhnin advanced past Hapoel Askhelon 3:2 on aggregate despite losing 2:0 in Ashkelon, Hapoel Beer Sheva beat Beitar Tel Aviv 2:0 to advance 4:0 on aggregate, and Maccabi Haifa drubbed Bnei Yehuda 4:1 in Haifa to advance 6:3 on aggregate. The draw for the semifinals took place earlier today, and we’ll have Sakhnin vs. Tel Aviv, and Haifa vs. Beer Sheva battling it out for a spot in the final. With all 4 semifinalists in the Top 6 of Ligat Ha’al, it should be an entertaining conclusion to the competition. The semifinals will be played at the Sammy Ofer on April 19 and 20.