Warriors. That’s what we saw from the Maccabi Tel Aviv players on Thursday night at Rishon Le’Zion in a Round of 16 Israel State Cup clash.
Peter Bosz’s side had to fight tooth and nail to get by the Leumit League side, but they accomplished what they had to in the knockout tournament win and move on to the quarterfinals.
On a freezing cold night with a vicious wind coming off of the Mediterranean Sea, the Yellow-and-Blue who were wearing their black-and-blue away kit took to a hard pitch at Haberfeld Stadium. The opponent, Hapoel Rishon Le’Zion owned by one of Israel’s all time greats and onetime Maccabi Tel Aviv player himself, Eyal Berkovic.
Berko’s side, coached by former Ironi Rishon Le’Zion and Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Ofir Haim knew that they had an opportunity to cause the upset and be the Cinderella story of the competition. Anytime a lower division team has a chance to knock off one of the big guns they come prepared, ready for battle, fighting for every ball as if it’s the last and packing it in defensively. And that’s exactly what Maccabi experienced all night long.
The Maccabi players were put to a huge test early on as Rishon shocked not only the visitors but themselves as well when they scored on a free kick to take an early lead. At that point, all bets were off and the Yellow-and-Blue threw off their gloves, no more mister nice guy. But not in their wildest dreams did they ever think they’d have to go to 120 minutes to reach their goal.
With the hosts in the drivers seat, the battle intensified. Central defender Tal Ben Haim hobbled around the pitch after an injury until his replacement was ready, racing after any ball that came his way. His substitution, Yuval Shpungin himself was just coming back from injury and didn’t expect to play 90 minutes but he buttoned up the hatch and did what he needed to do.
The second half saw inspired play by the club’s new striker Orlando Sa. It was clear that he got whacked up a bit and was hurting early on but it didn’t stop him from going airborne and nodding home the trying goal. I’m sure he didn’t think he’d have to play 75 minutes but he did also. Welcome to Israel, Orlando!
Captain Eran Zahavi, who had been frustrated by all night by keeper Matan Ambar still found a way to make it a habit of scoring bicycle kick goals as he drilled one home in extra time for his second in as many games. But now, even with a 2:1 lead, Eden Ben Basat was down and put having to be carried off the pitch. But as beat up as he was, he made sure to get back in and onto the cold grass to finish the match as best as he could. And that went for the rest of these warriors especially after Omri Ben Harush was sent off soon after the goal. Maccabi, reduced to 10-men buckled down and held on for the win and moved on to the quarterfinals.
The players walked out of the stadium late into the night battered and bruised. It may have been fitting that they wore the Black-and-Blue, but even though they may have been that way on the outside, they certainly had the heart of a champion on the inside. And that’s something you can never underestimate. The heart of a champion.
Maccabi have a huge test this coming Monday night away at the awaiting cauldron that is Teddy Stadium when they kick off against Beitar Jerusalem. But this is a team made up of troopers, heroes and champions. They are the warriors. Proud to wear the Maccabi Tel Aviv crest.