It’s getting real across The Pond, and across the Middle Sea, as the continental soccer seasons and cups race towards their finish lines. In the feel-good story of all time in England, Leicester City is a few points away from clinching an astonishing Premier League title, and in other noteworthy storylines Liverpool marches boldly towards what will hopefully be a Europa League trophy and automatic Champions League berth, and Nir Bitton pledged to remain at Celtic through 2020… unless Arsenal comes calling. But today here are two things that make the final cut, as usual dealing with my cultural-spiritual Zionist at heart, the one who takes pride in all things related to meaningful games involving Israeli teams and players.
The Final Four: Sammy Ofer Edition
The Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa played host to the semifinal matches of the Israeli State Cup last week, and both games were exciting affairs. First up was an April 20 clash between 1st place Hapoel Be’eer Sheva and (now) 4th-place Maccabi Haifa, in which Maccabi dealt Hapoel a surprising 3:1 defeat. For Maccabi Haifa, Dutch forward Glynor Plet scored in the 29th and 31st minutes, and Eliran Atar added a third goal in the 80th. For Plet, that makes 5 goals in the State Cup this year to go along with another 9 in the league, and Atar’s 2nd Cup goal of the season pair nicely with his 10 league goals for the Greens. Anthony Nwakaema’s 87th-minute goal (12th in all competitions) salvaged a modicum of dignity for the shell-shocked southerners, who were seeking their second State Cup victory of all time, and first since 1997.
In the second semifinal, played on April 21, Maccabi Tel Aviv came back from a goal down twice against B’nei Sakhnin, scoring a late winner to win a tough game against their Galilean rivals, 3:2. Firas Mugrabi’s 22nd-minute goal grabbed an early lead for Sakhnin, but just 5 minutes later Barak Itzakhi equalized for Maccabi in controversial fashion after playing on despite a Sakhnin player lying on the turf with an apparent injury. In the second half, the offenses continued to press, and Sakhnin were rewarded with a 52nd-minute goal from Shlomi Azulay to take a 2:1 lead. Eran Zahavi’s 66th-minute PK, his 45th goal in all competitions this season, equalized for the reigning cupholders, and Tal Ben Haim’s 85th minute winner put the blue-and-yellow into the finals.
Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv will take the field on May 23 at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem with a big silver cup at stake. Tel Aviv will enter the game as heavy favorites looking for their 24th State Cup victory in team history, as opposed to Haifa seeking their 6th piece of hardware, but in cup finals, anything can happen, so you never know.
A Three-Horse Race In The League Championship
It couldn’t be any closer at the top of the League Championship table, with
Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Brighton & Hove Albion all tied at 87 points, and the three teams separated by 3 goals on the goal-difference tiebreaker with only 2 games to play. The race for a Top-2 finish and automatic promotion to the Premier League will absolutely come down to the final matchday on May 6. Burnley is currently in the top spot, and with a pair of very winnable games ahead against QPR (13th place) and Charlton (23rd place) they have the easiest path to promotion. Second-place Middlesbrough faces 9th place Birmingham this weekend before hosting the 3rd-place Seagulls on the final Saturday. The bad news is that Albion have the most difficult matchups coming up, hosting 5th place Derby County this week before traveling to Middlesbrough on the final day. For the boys from Brighton, the goal is simple: to grab all 6 points from their 2 games, because if they win out, they’re guaranteed a top-2 finish and promotion to the EPL. The good news? The Seagulls are in particularly fine form as of late, winning their past 3 games by a combined score of 12-1, and Israeli striker Tomer Hemed has been on a goal-scoring binge recently, netting 4 goals in those 3 games, including a hat trick against Fulham at the AmEx on April 15 (his second goal from that day pictured here). Hemed now has 17 goals on the season, good for 4th in the League Championship, to go along with 6 assists. In a case of goal-scoring not being the be-all and end-all of soccer, though, fellow countryman Beram Kayal won the BHAFC Player of the Year award over the weekend, garnering 41% of the fan vote for the honor. If Brighton fall short of the top 2, they’ll enter the four-team playoff for the third promotion spot along with Hull City, Derby County, and either Sheffield Wednesday or Cardiff City.
Fly, Seagulls, fly.