Soccer: More excitement at bottom of table than top

With championship all but secured for Maccabi Tel Aviv, attention turns toward tight relegation battle.

April 24, 2015 07:11
2 minute read.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi . (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)

Maccabi Tel Aviv will aim to continue its stampede towards a third successive Premier League championship when it visits Maccabi Petah Tikva on Saturday night, while the bottom four sides in the standings face off in two crucial matches in the battle against relegation.

The yellow-and-blue requires nine points from its final six matches to clinch the league title regardless of other results after opening a 10-point gap over second-place Hapoel Beersheba with last week’s 4-1 win against Beitar Jerusalem.

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Maccabi extended its unbeaten home record this season, claiming a 13th win from 16 matches. However, it has gone three months since its last victory on the road, drawing two and losing two of its past four games away from Bloomfield Stadium.

Pako Ayestaran may choose to rotate his lineup and rest several of his regular starters ahead of Wednesday’s State Cup semifinal against Ahi Nazareth of the National League.

Maccabi is bidding to become the first local side to win the treble after already claiming Israeli soccer’s second cup competition, the Toto Cup, earlier this season.

One player who will certainly be hoping to make an appearance on Saturday is Eran Zahavi, who has 25 goals and needs six goals from Maccabi’s final six league matches to break Nissim Elmalich’s record of 30 goals in a season, from the 1954/55 campaign.

Four-and-a-half hours before Maccabi gets its match underway, the stadium in Petah Tikva will host a showdown of even greater significance between the local Hapoel and Hapoel Acre.

Only goal difference separates the three bottom teams in the standings, with Hapoel Petah Tikva (-17 goal differential), Acre (-20) and Hapoel Haifa (-24) all tied on 26 points. Ashdod SC is just three points further in front after FIFA canceled the six-point deduction it had been handed due to an unpaid transfer debt.

The two bottom sides at the end of the season will be relegated to the second-tier National League.

Acre sent Haifa to the bottom of the standings after beating it 1-0 last week, claiming its third victory over the past six matches after going winless in the previous 12 games.

Petah Tikva revived its hopes last weekend by recording just its second win in 17 matches, beating Hapoel Tel Aviv 2-1 at Bloomfield Stadium.

Ashdod’s winless streak reached 11 matches following a 0-0 draw at Maccabi Netanya last Saturday, but it still holds an important cushion over its rivals in the fight for survival after FIFA reversed its point deduction.

Ashdod hosts Haifa on Saturday, with the former failing to find the back of the net in its past three games while the latter has lost four straight contests without even scoring a goal.

Also Saturday, Maccabi Netanya welcomes Bnei Sakhnin and Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Hapoel Ra’anana.

The battle for European qualification continues on Sunday when Hapoel Beersheba visits Beitar Jerusalem, while Ironi Kiryat Shmona hosts Maccabi Haifa on Monday.

Beersheba and Kiryat Shmona are well placed to qualify for the Europa League from second and third places, but fourth position will also result in continental action next season should either Maccabi Tel Aviv or Beersheba go on to win the State Cup and finish in the top three. Beersheba faces Hapoel Afula of the National League in Wednesday’s other cup semifinal.

Beitar currently sits in fourth place, two points ahead of Maccabi Haifa and three points in front of Maccabi Petah Tikva.

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