Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa renew their rivalry at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday night, still hoping to salvage something from a bitterly disappointing season.
Both clubs began the campaign believing they would challenge defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv for the league title. However, they quickly lost touch with Maccabi, and also saw Hapoel Beersheba race ahead and already all but wrap up a top two finish.
Hapoel and Haifa also suffered early exits in the State Cup, leaving them with only third place and Europa League qualification to fight for. A third place finish will guarantee a Europa berth next season, while fourth position will also be sufficient to qualify for continental competition should Beersheba or Ironi Kiryat Shmona finish in the top three and also win the cup.
Kiryat Shmona, which visits Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday, currently sits in third place with 47 points, three more than Haifa in fourth and seven points clear of Hapoel.
After suffering a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat in the derby last week, Hapoel held Maccabi to a 0-0 draw on Monday, costing its bitter rival important points in the title race.
Nevertheless, Hapoel has triumphed only once in its past seven matches, picking up a mere four points from its 11 games against the five other teams who qualified for the championship playoffs.
“Our players found the way to bounce back in the derby and I’m very proud of them,” said Hapoel coach Ran Ben-Shimon.
“We showed that our season isn’t over yet even though we suffered some tough blows. We will be ready for Saturday’s match. We will enter every game from now on as if it is our most important match of the season.”
Also Saturday, the battle against relegation continues, with last-place Hapoel Ramat Hasharon (20 points) visiting Ashdod SC, while Bnei Yehuda (20) goes to Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Acre (27) hosts Hapoel Ra’anana (26).
Maccabi Petah Tikva (23) visits Beitar Jerusalem on Sunday.
On Monday, the top two meet at Bloomfield Stadium, with Hapoel Beersheba aiming to increase the pressure on league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv, which currently holds a five point gap over the southerners at the summit.
Beersheba was drawn on Thursday to face Kiryat Shmona in the State Cup semifinals.
Maccabi Petah Tikva will play the National League’s runaway leader, Maccabi Netanya, in the other semi. Both matches will take place on April 16 in Ramat Gan.