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Hapoel fan-favorite to play Maccabi spoiler in PT derby
By ALLON SINAI
04/20/2012
There aren’t many things that can soften the pain of relegation, but taking your much-hated rival with you is certainly one of them.
 
After four seasons in the Premier League, Hapoel Petah Tikva was officially relegated to the National League on Monday following Hapoel Beersheba’s 1-0 victory over Maccabi Petah Tikva.

However, Hapoel Petah Tikva’s season is not yet over.

Its fate may be sealed, but rock-bottom Hapoel will still have a big say in the identity of the two teams which will join it in the second division next season.

There aren’t many things that can soften the pain of relegation, but taking your much-hated rival with you is certainly one of them.

Hapoel hosts Maccabi in the Petah Tikva derby at the Moshava Stadium on Saturday, with the hosts knowing a win would significantly diminish their bitter rival’s chances of another season in the top flight.

Hapoel, which still holds the local record of winning five straight league championships (1959- 1963), always knew that its campaign would likely end in relegation after it began the season with a nine-point deduction as a punishment for going into administration.

Maccabi, on the other hand, had high expectations.

After ending the last three seasons no lower than eighth and no higher than seventh, the club owned by the Luzon family was hoping to push for European qualification or, at the very least, to wallow in mediocrity for a fourth straight year.

However, Petah Tikva’s season began to unravel in October after team president Amos Luzon sacked coach Marco Balbul despite the side being just three points back of third place.

Balbul’s replacement Eyal Lachman also didn’t last long and the team’s third coach of the season, Moshe Sinai, has recorded little success since winning his first two matches at the helm after taking charge in late January.

Since those two victories, Maccabi has won just one of nine matches, beating Hapoel Haifa 2-1 two weeks ago before a now famous on-field brawl ensued.

Petah Tikva was initially deducted three points by the Israel Football Association disciplinary court after two of its employees assaulted Haifa player Ali Khatib.

However, the IFA High Court decided earlier this week to delay the point deduction to next season, resulting in outrage and cries to overhaul the way the league is run, which is currently the responsibility of the IFA and its chairman Avi Luzon, brother of Amos and the former boss of the familyowned club.

Despite the High Court’s kind ruling, Maccabi remained the favorite to join Hapoel Petah Tikva and Hapoel Rishon Lezion in the National League following its 1-0 defeat to Beersheba, which gave the southerners a three-point cushion from the relegation zone.

Maccabi has picked up just five points from a possible 27 over its last nine matches, and with just four more games remaining in the season, it needs to start turning matters around quickly, preferably with Saturday’s derby.

Also Saturday, Beersheba will visit Rishon Lezion, while Hapoel Haifa, which is two points ahead of the southerners, travels to Hapoel Acre.

On Sunday, Betar Jerusalem goes for its seventh straight win when it visits Hapoel Ramat Hasharon in the relegation playoffs.

The hotly-contested battle for European qualification also continues on Saturday, with every team from second-placed Maccabi Netanya to Ashdod SC, five points back in eighth, still legitimately believing in their chances of playing in the Europa League next season.

With Netanya not visiting Maccabi Tel Aviv until Monday, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa, Bnei Sakhnin and Bnei Yehuda enter Saturday with a chance to move up to second.

Hapoel Tel Aviv welcomes Sakhnin and Haifa visits Bnei Yehuda, while champion Ironi Kiryat Shmona hosts Ashdod.
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