Maccabi Netanya’s Diya Saba.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Premier League title hopes are hanging by a thread after suffering a humbling 4-1 defeat at Maccabi Netanya and the league’s top scorer Diya Saba, who took his tally for the season to 21 goals with a hat-trick on Tuesday night.
Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff was hoping for a positive reaction from his players after announcing last week that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. Cruyff joined Maccabi as a sports director in the summer of 2012 and led the yellow-and-blue back to the summit of local soccer.
After going a decade without a league title, Maccabi won three consecutive championships in his first three years at the helm, as well as claiming a State Cup and two Toto Cups. The second Toto Cup came under the guidance of coach Cruyff, who moved down from the front office to begin his coaching career at Maccabi last summer.
The yellow-and-blue’s first match since Cruyff’s announcement could have hardly gone any worse, leaving Maccabi in third place in the standings, five points behind leader Hapoel Beersheba. The two-time defending champion hosts second-placed Beitar Jerusalem, which is one point back, at Turner Stadium on Wednesday.
Tel Aviv got off to an encouraging start on Tuesday, but couldn’t convert its chances and Saba netted the opener in the 17th minute, making the most of a mistake by Jean-Sylvain Babin. The French defender was also involved in Netanya’s second goal, again failing to clear the danger and allowing Ramzi Sfuri to double the advantage in first-half stoppage time.
Saba effectively ended the encounter with his second goal in the 57th minute and completed his hat-trick in injury time, moving 11 goals clear of the second-best scorer in the league this season, after Barak Itzhaki scored for Tel Aviv from the penalty spot 10 minutes from time.
“I can’t really say what I think. I apologize to people who support us and follow us and expect a lot more from us,” said Cruyff. “In the playoffs when you miss chances you pay for it and today we paid dearly for it.”
Cruyff said his team will not give up on the title race.
“We have the obligation to fight. There is an important game tomorrow and a draw would be good for us,” added Cruyff. “But we are not a team that should talk about the championship. We are a team that just has to produce a lot better than we have been doing recently. This is a painful result for us but there are still eight games left and we have the obligation to keep fighting until the end and above all keep fighting for the fans because today was unacceptable.”
Beersheba and Beitar met at Turner five weeks ago, recording a 1-1 draw that meant the two most impressive streaks in Israeli soccer remained alive. Beersheba has still never lost a league match at Turner, a record run of 49 matches stretching back to the opening of the venue early in the 2015/16 campaign.
Beitar’s streak isn’t as long, but is still outstanding, with the team scoring at least one goal in 33 consecutive league matches.
Beersheba hasn’t played in two-and-a-half weeks, while Beitar is coming off a 3-2 win over Ironi Kiryat Shmona in the State Cup semifinals on Sunday. Also Wednesday, Hapoel Haifa, which is five points off the summit and will face Beitar in the cup final, visits Bnei Yehuda