Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
A spectacular Eran Zahavi winner with one minute to play secured Maccabi Tel Aviv a 2-1 victory over Maccabi Haifa at Bloomfield Stadium on Sunday night and kept the two-time defending champion in the driving seat in the Premier League title race.
Maccabi reestablished a five-point gap over Hapoel Beersheba at the top of the standings ahead of their showdown at Bloomfield in two weeks’ time following the international break.
The yellow-and-blue required just 47 seconds to take the lead, moving in front courtesy of Nosa Igiebor’s goal. The hosts were in complete control in the first half, but were unable to add to the opener and former yellow-and-blue striker Eliran Atar punished them after the break, netting the equalizer after 61 minutes.
The match seemed to be heading for a draw, especially after Tel Aviv’s Barak Itzhaki registered one of the misses of the season when he failed to find the back of the net from three meters out.
But as has been the case time and again over the past two seasons, Zahavi was on hand once more to rescue Maccabi when it needed him most, smashing the ball in from the edge of the box in the 89th minute to spark huge celebrations in Bloomfield.
Some fans hadn’t even taken their seat by the time Igiebor gave the hosts the lead.
Nikola Mitrovic’s delicate chip was perfectly timed for an in-coming Igiebor and the Nigerian made no mistake from close range.
The yellow-and-blue completely dominated the proceedings throughout the first half and Igiebor should have doubled the advantage in the 29th minute, only to have his weak effort denied by Haifa goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
It seemed almost inevitable that Haifa would finally get its foot in the door in the second half and the hosts would live to rue their failure to convert their first-half dominance to clear-cut chances.
Stojkovic registered a rare assist after his kick bounced over the Tel Aviv defense and into the path of Atar, who scored with a clinical finish.
Atar didn’t celebrate, a testimony to his time with the yellow-and-blue where he was the Premier League’s top scorer in 2012/13 with 22 goals, but the night would ultimately be remembered by the heroics of Tel Aviv’s current unprecedented star.
There was always only going to be one outcome when the ball fell perfectly for the league’s top scorer on the edge of the box, and Zahavi made sure Maccabi maintained its title lead with his 22nd goal of the season.
Elsewhere, any lingering hope Ironi Kiryat Shmona may have had of challenging for the title seemed to go up in flames with a 2-1 defeat to red-hot Beitar Jerusalem.
Kiryat Shmona led the standings for a three-month stretch, but dropped to its fourth straight loss on Sunday and has won only won of its past nine games to fall 10 points behind first place.
Sunday’s defeat means Kiryat Shmona needs to already look over its shoulder in the battle for third place and Europa League qualification, with Beitar closing within just four points.
A third-place finish will guarantee qualification for continental competition next season, while fourth will also be sufficient should either Maccabi Tel Aviv or Hapoel Beersheba win the State Cup and finish in first or second place.
Two goals by Romanian striker Liviu Antal within 10 first-half minutes (18, 27) gave Beitar a promising lead, with Roei Kehat’s 79th-minute strike no more than a consolation goal.
“We are still growing as a team and our main goal is to continue and work hard,” said Beitar coach Guy Levy. “We are thinking about reaching Europe, but we need to continue and improve to do that.”