|21 May 2009|
By Yarone Arbel, Tel Aviv
If Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon is envious of anything heading into Thursday's Basketball Super League final against Maccabi Haifa, it's this.
"It's very comfortable to be the underdog," Gershon said of Haifa, a club he once coached himself.
Maccabi Tel Aviv's players don't seem to be drawing much comfort from the fact that the game is in their very own Nokia Arena.
"It's just one game so anything can happen," the team's national team star Lior Eliyahu said.
"We won't know what the pace of this game will be until we start playing it."
Haifa have already lost one title this season, the National Cup.
Hapoel Holon upset them in the last second of the final.
What is not in doubt is the quality of Haifa, a team that has been among the best in the BSL after a six-year absence.
Haifa rookie Davon Jefferson said: "I think the experience we collected during this season will help us a lot.
"Everything we went through, including the game on Tuesday, should help us."
His Haifa coach, Avi Ashkenazi, is confident as well.
"We have some advantages over Maccabi, but this isn't the place to talk about them," Ashkenazi said.
"If we find the way to bring them to the court, things might go in our way and then anything could happen."
The won/loss record in games between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Haifa stands at 81-6 in favor of the former, but in their last encounter it was Haifa who had the upper hand.
The last time the two teams played a title game was in 1985 when they fought for the National Cup.
The Tel Aviv outfit has enjoyed the biggest margin of victory in a game between the sides with a 121-81 win in the National Cup final.
Haifa's coach in those days was none other than Maccabi's current bench-boss - Gershon.
Wouldn't it be interesting if Haifa were to win, though, especially considering that late-season signing Malik Dixon was a key man in Holon's surprise title triumph last year?
Dixon could become the first player ever in the history of Israeli basketball to win two titles back-to-back with two different teams.
Last year, he hit the winning shot with two seconds on the clock to upset Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Certainly the way Haifa handled themselves in difficult circumstances on Tuesday suggests they could win the title.
They trailed by eight points in the fourth quarter against Hapoel Jerusalem but fought back and forced overtime before winning.
"I hope we still have strength for Thursday night," Dixon said.
"I just hope we'll do it again in the finals."
All of Maccabi Tel Aviv's last four games in the Final Four, that include the 2007 finals, both games in 2008 and Tuesday night, were decided by no more than two points, so no one should be surprised if this year's final is close.