Hapoel Tel Aviv’s hopes of qualifying for Europe received an emphatic boost on Saturday night thanks to a resounding 4-0 victory over Maccabi Haifa at Bloomfield Stadium.
Hapoel entered the match with just a single win from its previous seven league games, but it humbled the Greens on Saturday, closing to within a single point of Haifa in fourth place.
Ironi Kiryat Shmona remains in the driving seat to finish in third position and book a Europa League berth for next season, moving six points clear of Haifa with Saturday’s 4-1 triumph at Bnei Sakhnin.
However, should either second-place Hapoel Beersheba or Kiryat Shmona finish in the top three as well as lift the State Cup, fourth place will also be sufficient to qualify for continental competition.
Beersheba faces Kiryat Shmona in the cup semifinals in two weeks.
Hapoel Tel Aviv had failed to claim a single win in its previous 11 matches against the five other teams in the championship playoffs, collecting just four points in total against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Kiryat Shmona, Haifa and Sakhnin.
However, it recorded its biggest victory over Haifa since 1972 on Saturday, making the most of its opponent’s lackluster display.
Haifa goalkeeper Amir Edri played a significant part in the first two goals, parrying Shay Abutbuls’s shot into the back of the net in the 19th minute before failing to deal with Sasha’s long range effort seven minutes later, allowing Israel Zaguri to tuck in the rebound.
Edri was substituted by Bojan Saranov at the break, but Hapoel moved into a 3-0 lead five minutes into the second half, with Sasha finding the back of the net.
The league’s top scorer, Omer Damari, missed a penalty for the first time in his career in the 66th minute, but he registered his second assist of the evening five minutes from time, setting up Omer Fadida’s goal.
“We are not dead and buried,” said Hapoel coach Ran Ben-Shimon. “Even in our toughest defeats this season the players never gave up. The ticket to Europe is within our reach and if we continue like this our fate will be in our hands.”
Kiryat Shmona extended its unbeaten streak to nine matches by claiming its sixth victory over that stretch at Sakhnin.
Mindaugas Panka (4), Vladimir Brown (16), Yoel Chehanovich (32) and David Manga (90) scored for the winners, with Ala’a Abu Saleh (6) initially bringing the hosts level.
Only five points separate the five bottom teams after both Bnei Yehuda and Hapoel Ramat Hasharon won on Saturday.
Ohad Kadusi’s fifth-minute goal handed Bnei Yehuda (23 points) a 1-0 victory at Hapoel Haifa.
Ramat Hasharon (23) remained in last place, but boosted its hopes of survival with a 1-0 victory at Ashdod SC courtesy of Kenny Sayaf’s 38th-minute strike.
Raz Cohen’s goal two minutes from time gave Hapoel Ra’anana (27) a precious point, securing a 1-1 draw at Hapoel Acre (28). Juliano Spadacio handed Acre the lead from the penalty spot in the 40th minute.
Maccabi Petah Tikva (23) visits Beitar Jerusalem (30) on Sunday.
On Monday, Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Hapoel Beersheba in a showdown between the league’s two top sides.
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