It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in the Northern Israel city of Haifa, a passing Mediterranean storm has just drenched those who were braving the elements with a stroll on the windswept boardwalk.
The beachfront is deserted at this time of year, the cafes and restaurants that are alive during summer have the hatches well and truly battened down and save for a few surfers who are reveling in the rough conditions it is safe to assume that the city’s population have stayed indoors thinking of the upcoming spring.
One could be forgiven for assuming there is nothing of note happening in town today however in the city’s brand new football stadium Nir Klinger’s Hapoel Haifa are locked in a tense struggle with Bnei Saknin in the Ligat Ha’al’s early kick off.
Saturday afternoon fixtures in Israel are usually poorly attended as Shabbat prevents public transport from running until darkness falls on Saturday evening and shops, cafes and bars open up again to the new week.
The fixture planners try to reserve the Saturday afternoon slot for some of the lesser clubs with low support numbers compared to say Beitar Jerusalem, Maccabi Tel Aviv the likes of Maccabi Haifa who regularly occupy the Saturday and Sunday night prime time slots.
Usually team likes Saknin and Hapoel Haifa are decent candidates for such an affair, traditionally both spend most of their season flirting with the lower echelons of the division and by the middle of March have usually achieved safety, their season peters out and those in attendance follow suit.
The only thing different about this match is that an 83rd minute Gal Aral goal that secures a 1-0 win has temporarily put Hapoel Haifa in second place and consolidated their place in the top four that are separated by a mere three points.
Those in the paltry attendance are delirious with relief, their cheers echo around the empty stands of this 30, 000 capacity stadium as Hapoel consolidate their best position in almost 19 years.
An exasperated Klinger describes his players as “heroes” in the post match press conference however in this football mad city it seems that the majority are oblivious to what is taking place and are preparing themselves for the main event later that night as Maccabi Haifa a club in turmoil visit Beitar Jerusalem in a game that occupies that night prime time TV slot.
Hapoel Haifa are very much second to Maccabi in this city, just over 3,000 people paid in to see Hapoel claim second spot in the league, meanwhile Maccabi will take 5,000 fans to Jerusalem and it is their abject performance in a 3-1 defeat at a raucous Tedi stadium that occupies the Sunday morning back pages and airwaves.
Klinger and Hapoel get a mention but it’s consistent with how the traditional Saturday afternoon early fixture is treated and in truth people don’t take much notice.
Since winning their only title in 1999 Hapoel Haifa’s fortunes have been bleak, liquidation in 2001 after their financially plagued owner’s tragic suicide saw them consigned to the second division and since their return to the premier league in 2008 they have failed to ever finish above Maccabi or indeed in the top six clubs who playoff for the title each season.
The club whose traditional working class support base from outside the city share the impressive Sami Ofer stadium with their more illustrious rivals have been under Nir Klinger’s guidance since March 2017 and finished last season in 8th spot , 6 points above the relegation places.
Two acquisitions by Klinger that have been key to their success this term are the signings of attacking players Eden Ben Basat and Alon Turgeman from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa respectively who have contributed with 16 of the side’s 29 goals this season.
Basat, capped 13 times by Israel and now aged 31 has experience with Toulouse in Ligue Une. The player who scored a brace against Northern Ireland during a WC qualifier at Windsor Park in 2013 has formed a potent partnership with Alon Turgeman who struggled for gametime with Maccabi.
Their defence marshalled by Romanian Gabriel Tamas who joined from Steau Bucharest and the Swede Rassie Sjostedt who signed on a free from Aris in Greece last July also boasts the best record in Ligat Ha’al with only 16 goals conceded in 21 matches.
Homegrown talent is a feature of the side also, Liran Sardal who captained the side against Saknin and Gal Arel who scored the winner are products of the club’s very successful youth policy and for a side who are operating on a tight budget this is key to their success.
Hapoel’s start to the season caught the league off guard with seven victories in nine games , the absence of Turgeman and Ben Basat thru injury in January hurt the side losing games at home to Beitar and Kiryat Shmona.
However after this third win in the bounce Klinger was full of praise for his hardworking side:
It’s the players, not the coach. We’ve been playing for almost a month without our attackers, we have a lot of constraints and we always solve them and the credit comes to the players.
Everyone earns his place and for me, our players are heroes. I know that Gal Erel was disappointed to be on the bench today but I have my reasons, I knew he could impress when he came in fresh and he scored. Eden Ben Bassat should not have played either, but he went came on for 30 minutes and died on the field for us.
Boasting a record that includes twelve championships since 1984 and two Champions’ League group stage appearances including a 3-0 victory at home to Manchester United in 2002, Maccabi Haifa currently languish in tenth place in the fourteen team Premier League with an abject record of just one win in their last eleven games.
Since finishing runners-up to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2013 Maccabi Haifa have been in a consistent state of regression unable to compete with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Be’er Sheva for league honours.
Former club stalwarts and now vocal media personalities Yaniv Katan and Eyal Berkovic have taken to the airways in recent times to even explore the possibility that a curse has been put on the club since moving to their new home in 2014 such has the side’s luck been.
Owner and transport magnate Yaakov Shakar has continued to invest heavily in the club however performances on the pitch have been listless with the players demonstrating a lack of confidence.
What drains Maccabi fans is that players who were signed with club and have flopped are now prospering elsewhere in the league, a case in point is Alon Turgeman who is spearheading Hapoel Haifa’s charge, Shuval Goslan who is impressing at Kiryat Shmona and Idan Vered who once leaving Haifa for Beitar put himself back in contention for a National team starting berth.
This season has been difficult for Haifa, Guy Luzon the former Standard Liege and Charlton boss left via mutual consent in November with Dutchman Fred Rutten who had managed PSV and Schalke 04 assuming responsibilities but whilst the players are playing with more structure the results have not as much improved.
Last summer, Shachar and Luzon set about assembling a team that on paper could at least challenge for a title, defenders Rami Gershon was signed from Gent and Omri Ben Harush from Maccabi Tel Aviv as a statement of intent along with PAOK striker Stefanos Athanasiadis.
However, for various reasons this team has failed to produce on the field and are now drawn into a relegation battle as the season heads towards spring.
A glance at this week’s fixtures sees Hapoel once again occupying the early kick off away at Hapoel Raa’anna, whilst Maccabi later on that night will hope that former player Shuval Goslan dosent further their humiliation in front of their own expectant and impatient fans at Sami Ofer.
Berkovic and co. on the radio will be focusing on this story without a doubt whilst oblivious to the fact that by time this game kicks off Hapoel Haifa could be sitting on top of the Ligat Ha’al.