(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Less than six weeks ago it seemed as if this would be a season to forget for Betar Jerusalem.
Itzhak Schum had just been fired following a 3-2 defeat to Hapoel Haifa, leaving the team languishing in seventh position in the Premier League standings and in serious danger of missing out on the top six playoffs.
Jerusalem chairman Itzik Kornfein chose to name Schum’s assistant David Amsalem as his replacement with the hope that he might manage to steady the ship and guide the team to a respectable finish to the season.
However, in the past month-and-a-half Amsalem has exceeded all expectations, leading Betar to five straight league victories and a place in the quarterfinals of the State Cup with a penalty shootout win over Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem’s resurgence has coincided with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s regression, and out of the blue Amsalem’s men find themselves with a superb chance of securing European qualification for next season by leapfrogging the yellow-and-blue and finishing the campaign in third position.
Betar trailed Maccabi by some 17 points six weeks ago.
But it closed to within four points last Saturday, with the gap to be halved after next weekend’s games ahead of the final five-match stretch to end the season.
Betar faces a tricky road match at Hapoel Ramat Gan on Saturday. Ramat Gan has won three of its last four league games and knocked Maccabi Haifa out of the cup last week.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, on the other hand, will have an ideal opportunity to claim its first win in nearly two months when it hosts Ahi Nazareth on Saturday.
Nazareth was hammered 5-0 by Betar last week, its third thrashing by that score-line in its last four league encounters.
Hapoel Tel Aviv should have little trouble closing the gap on
league-leader Maccabi Haifa to five points on Saturday when its visits
rock-bottom Hapoel Ra’anana, which named Tzvika Tzemah as its third
coach of the season on Wednesday.
Tel Aviv has won seven of its last eight matches, while Ra’anana has lost eight straight.
Haifa visits Beni Yehuda on Monday night.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Beersheba visits Hapoel Haifa, Hapoel Petah Tikva
hosts Maccabi Netanya, Bnei Sakhnin welcomes Ashdod SC and Maccabi
Petah Tikva travels up North to face Hapoel Acre.