Hapoel Beersheba forward Anthony Nawkaeme.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
With seven matches to play and a sixpoint gap at the top, Hapoel Beersheba knows every win is a huge step towards claiming a third straight Premier League championship.
Beersheba hosts Hapoel Haifa at Turner Stadium on Sunday, with a victory to take it nine points clear, putting second-placed Beitar Jerusalem under massive pressure ahead of its showdown with Maccabi Tel Aviv at Teddy Stadium on Monday.
Beersheba effectively ended the title hopes of one of its main rivals by beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 on the road last week for a fifth straight victory. The result left the yellow-and-blue 11 points behind the reigning champion.
Beersheba’s defensive record has been the key behind its recent run, with the team conceding just two goals over its past eight matches.
Despite having Portuguese defender Miguel Vitor for just six matches before his season was ended with knee surgery, and also missing Israel national team defender Shir Tzedek since September after he failed an anti-doping test at the start of the season, Beersheba has by far the best defensive record in the league, conceding 19 goals in 29 matches, seven fewer than the next best record.
Beersheba has also been without defenders Mihaly Korhut and Matan Ohayon over recent weeks, but nevertheless has kept a clean sheet in 10 of its past 15 games.
The team suffered another injury blow when an MRI showed that Michael Ohana tore ligaments in his knee during the win over Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Beersheba will also be without the suspended Ben Bitton and Maor Melikson on Sunday, but should welcome Anthony Nawkaeme back to the starting lineup after more than a month due to a knee injury, with Niv Zrihen also expected to be fit.
Zrihen missed the win over Maccabi through injury, but scored two goals and set up another in the 3-1 triumph over Beitar at Turner 11 days ago.
With Hapoel facing three consecutive games on the road against Maccabi Netanya, Bnei Yehuda and Beitar following Saturday’s clash, it will be desperate to take all three points against Haifa.
Elsewhere Sunday, Bnei Sakhnin hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva in the relegation playoffs.
On Saturday, Maccabi Netanya moved within three points of fourth place and possible qualification for European competition, beating Bnei Yehuda 3-1. Matan Hozez gave the hosts a second-minute lead, but an Eran Levy 13th-minute penalty and his stunning long range effort in the 68th minute completed the comeback for Netanya before Nico Olsak wrappedup the three points in the 84th minute.
Elsewhere, Maccabi Haifa all but secured its survival, beating Hapoel Ashkelon 2-1 to move 10 points clear of the relegation zone with four matches and 12 points left to play for.
Brazilian midfielder Caio netted the winner four minutes from time, with David Manga (37) initially canceling out Roei Kehat’s 25th-minute opener for Haifa.
Ashkelon remained in the relegation zone, four points behind Ashdod, which conceded a painful stoppage-time equalizer to draw 1-1 with rock-bottom Hapoel Acre.
Mauricio Cordeiro gave Ashdod the lead in the 57th minute and was sent off after Ashkelon tied the score in the 93rd-minute through Yitzhak Asafa’s own-goal.
Acre is still 11 points from safety, but at least kept its lingering hopes alive for one more week.
Hapoel Ra’anana effectively guaranteed itself another season in the top flight, with Shimon Abuhazira’s sixth-minute winner securing a 1-0 victory at Ironi Kiryat Shmona and moving the team 10 points clear of the danger zone.