Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Gili Vermouth (left) will hope to improve on his mediocre debut.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The Premier League title race seemed to be heading towards a foregone conclusion just a couple of weeks ago.
Two-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv surged to the top of the standings with nine wins from 11 matches, going seven straight games without even conceding a goal.
Within a month, Maccabi turned a fourpoint deficit into a four-point lead over Ironi Kiryat Shmona, which picked up just four points from four matches after going unbeaten in its first 16 games of the campaign.
Hapoel Beersheba’s lingering championship hopes also looked to be all but over, with Elisha Levy’s side falling eight points behind first place after winning just two of six matches.
However, two consecutive draws by Maccabi mean the battle for the title is once more looking like a three-horse race, with the yellow-and-blue holding a two-point gap over Kiryat Shmona and Beersheba a further four points back.
Kiryat Shmona was five minutes away from leapfrogging Maccabi back into first place on Monday, only for Barak Badash’s equalizer to secure Tel Aviv a 1-1 draw at Bloomfield Stadium and maintain the status quo.
Beersheba was the biggest winner on Monday, kick-starting its title challenge after beating Hapoel Tel Aviv 1-0 two days earlier.
Despite the disappointing draws against Maccabi Netanya and Kiryat Shmona, Maccabi is still unbeaten through 13 matches entering Saturday’s game at Hapoel Haifa.
Haifa will be guided by new coach Tal Banin for the first time after Reuven Atar was sacked on Monday following the team’s third straight loss which left it just one point above the relegation zone.
“Two draws and we are in a crisis,” quipped Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran on Thursday. “Every team experiences highs and lows during the season and I’m not feeling any pressure.”
Kiryat Shmona hosts Hapoel Ra’anana, which has won five of six matches since the firing and rehiring of coach Haim Silvas to climb up to sixth place.
Also Saturday, Beersheba faces a tricky visit to Maccabi Netanya.
Netanya was unbeaten through four matches with coach Roni Levy before conceding a stoppage-time goal to lose to Ra’anana last weekend.
Beersheba has won just three of 11 matches on the road this season, something it will quickly have to improve on to have any chance of keeping pace with the top two.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Petah Tikva will aim to record its second straight win under new coach Menahem Koretzki when it visits Bnei Sakhnin. Only six points separate Petah Tikva in the relegation zone and Maccabi Haifa in seventh place.
On Sunday, Beitar Jerusalem visits Maccabi Petah Tikva. Beitar’s players left the city on Thursday ahead of the expected snowfall and will train in Netanya until the match.
On Monday, Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts Maccabi Haifa.