Kiryat Shmona’s Roei Kehat and Oded Elkayam and Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Israel Zaguri.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
While Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Beersheba continue to prepare for their showdown on Monday night, Ironi Kiryat Shmona can increase the pressure on its title rivals when it hosts Maccabi Netanya on Saturday.
Kiryat Shmona is still unbeaten after 15 matches and has led the standings throughout almost the entire season. The Northerners can open a five-point gap over Maccabi Tel Aviv with a third consecutive win on Saturday, with Beersheba a further two points back.
After winning seven of its first nine matches, Kiryat Shmona’s campaign hit its first bump in late November, with Barak Bachar’s team triumphing in just one of four games, including draws against the lowly Hapoel Ra’anana and Hapoel Acre.
Kiryat Shmona was also far from impressive in its two matches since, but it got back on track with two clean-sheets, claiming 1-0 victories over Ashdod SC and Hapoel Tel Aviv to remain in first place.
After keeping four clean-sheets in its first five games of the season, Kiryat Shmona conceded at least one goal in seven of eight contests before once more returning to its stingy ways in its past two encounters.
“We know we are not playing at our best at the moment, but the guys are giving 100 percent,” Bachar said. “We will have to improve and we know that, but we will not apologize for winning matches 1-0. If we manage to win matches in which we aren’t playing so well, I hope and believe we will challenge for the title until the end of the season.
“Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Beersheba may be winning their matches easier than us, but when matters are tougher they are also sweeter.”
Despite the fact they are still waiting to be paid their salary for the month of November, Netanya players have kept the team out of the relegation zone in recent weeks by winning two and drawing one of their past four matches.
Those two victories came on the road and coach Yossi Mizrahi is hoping his players can put their financial troubles aside once more on Saturday.
“People aren’t even aware of the magnitude of the problems we have at the club,” Mizrahi said. “I’m very happy that we have somehow managed to put our troubles aside when we have a match and win.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv will aim to put some distance between itself and the relegation zone on Saturday when it visits Hapoel Haifa.
Tel Aviv’s loss to Kiryat Shmona earlier this week was its fifth over the past six matches and the reds hold just a fourpoint gap over the bottom two. Coach Asi Domb would like to overhaul the squad in the January transfer window, but despite the reports connecting Reims striker Eliran Atar with a move to the club, the coach knows he is unlikely to be granted his wish.
“Hapoel needs two defenders, a midfielder and two strikers,” Domb said.
“That isn’t going to happen, but I hope we can at least sign one striker and a defender.”
Beitar Jerusalem will hope to build on last weekend’s 3-1 win at Maccabi Haifa when it hosts rock-bottom Hapoel Acre on Saturday.
Beitar’s victory at Sammy Ofer Stadium was just its second over the past 10 matches and fourth overall this season.
Acre has picked up only a single point from its last four games and coach Alon Harazi may well be sacked should the side drop to another defeat at Teddy Stadium.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Ra’anana hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva and Ashdod SC visits Bnei Sakhnin.
On Sunday, Marco Balbul will guide Maccabi Haifa in league action for the first time when the Greens visit Hapoel Petah Tikva. Balbul’s debut on the sidelines on Wednesday ended in a 2-1 defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Toto Cup final.