Maccabi TA players celebrating.
(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
Eran Zahavi regained his scoring touch and led Maccabi Tel Aviv to within a single point of league-leader Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Sunday night, netting the winner in a 1-0 victory over nine-man Maccabi Haifa at Sammy Ofer Stadium.
Following a record 17 consecutive league matches with a goal, Zahavi failed to find the back of the net in the yellow-and-blue’s previous two games.
He missed what could have been a decisive penalty 11 minutes from time in last week’s 0-0 draw against Hapoel Beersheba, but made no mistake from the spot on Sunday, scoring the only goal of the match in the 78th minute.
Despite having a one-man advantage from the 28th minute following Dekel Keinan’s sending off, Tel Aviv had to dig deep before securing all three points to cut the deficit from first place after Kiryat Shmona suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, falling to a 3-0 defeat at Maccabi Petah Tikva.
“We made it difficult for ourselves,” said Tel Aviv coach Pako Ayestaran.
“After the sending off we had more difficulties.
In the second half we changed the shape and had three great chances in the first few minutes. The team was a little anxious as we couldn’t find the right way, but we did at the end.”
Haifa ended the match with nine men after Edin Cocalic was sent off for handling the ball in the box before Zahavi slotted in the winner.
Haifa remained in eighth place, but is just four points above the relegation zone.
“I knew matters wouldn’t change magically and I’m still searching for solutions,” said coach Marco Balbul, who has picked up one point in his first two matches as Haifa coach. “I believe that we will find our way and I believe in my ability to get the team back on track.”
After a quiet start to the match, Haifa’s already difficult task became a whole lot more complicated. Gustavo Boccoli was pressured into passing the ball towards his goal and Keinan, who was the last man on defense, was shown a straight red card after tripping Eden Ben-Basat.
Haifa fans were outraged and can be forgiven for feeling as if they had already seen this match, with the Greens having a player sent off for the fifth time in their past seven meetings with the yellow-and-blue.
But despite their one-man advantage, Tel Aviv struggled to create clearcut chances, and when it finally did, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic was on hand to clear the danger.
The visitors looked sharper at the start of the second half, but attempts by Nosa Igiebor, Tal Ben-Haim and Zahavi all failed to find the back of Haifa’s net.
The breakthrough finally arrived in the 78th minute courtesy of another refereeing decision. Referee Daniel Bar-Natan correctly ruled that Cocalic blocked Shiran Yeini’s shot with his hand, resulting in a second yellow card and the sending off of the Bosnian and Zahavi’s winner.
Haifa never really had any hope of mounting a comeback with nine men and Tel Aviv closed in on Kiryat Shmona after keeping its fourth consecutive clean sheet.
Earlier Sunday, the Israel Football Association announced that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s State Cup round of 32 encounter against Beitar Tel Aviv/ Ramle on Wednesday will be able to be played in Ramle after police gave the go ahead.