With eight matches still to play in the Premier League season after this weekend, Maccabi Tel Aviv will have to wait at least a few more weeks before it can begin celebrating its first championship since 2003.

However, a win over second-placed Maccabi Haifa at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday night, and only an unprecedented collapse will deny Israel’s most illustrious club just its second league title in 17 seasons.

The yellow-and-blue currently holds a 10-point gap over the Greens, who will surely lose any hope of claiming the league title should they fall 13 points behind on Saturday with only 24 points left to play for.

Tel Aviv brings an eight-match winning streak into Saturday’s showdown, losing just one of 13 encounters since falling 1-0 at the hands of Haifa over four months ago.

Oscar Garcia’s team also boasts an outstanding home record, winning 13 of 14 games so far, including its past nine by a remarkable combined goal difference of 32-3.

However, Haifa has also been almost unstoppable in recent months and would have likely been neck-and-neck with Tel Aviv had it won more than just one of its first 10 matches of the campaign.

Haifa has since triumphed in 14 of 17 matches under the guidance of Arik Benado, losing just once over that stretch.

”A win on Saturday could put us in a completely different position in the title race,” Benado said on Thursday.

“I believe in my players and in my team and I believe we can do it.”

Benado claimed that simply remaining in the title hunt at this stage of the season should be regarded as a success for Haifa after its disastrous start to the campaign.

“We are still battling for the championship and the State Cup and that is really important considering the way we began this season,” he added. “We are proud to be in this position. Maccabi is a strong team but so are we. There won’t be many surprises in the match and I think that whoever wins the one-on-one battles between the players will also win the match.”

Oscar insisted that even should Tel Aviv take all three points on Saturday, the title race will be far from decided.

“It’s a very important game for us, but no more than the other games in the playoffs,” said Maccabi’s Spanish coach. “As long as we haven’t mathematically clinched the title we have to win more games to achieve our target.”

Despite Haifa’s early season struggles, Oscar reminded everyone attending Thursday’s press conference that he always believed the Greens would challenge for the championship.

“I always thought Haifa will be fighting until the end of the season for the championship and I said that after we beat them in the first game of the season,” Oscar said. “We have the same pressure as every game as we want to win every game. I think nothing will be decided in Saturday’s game. This is the most important match because it is our next match, but all the games until the end of the season are very important.”

Elsewhere Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv will look to claim consecutive victories for the first time since January when it visits Hapoel Ramat Hasharon.

Tel Aviv returned to third place in the standings with a 1-0 victory at Ironi Kiryat Shmona two weeks ago, but it has struggled desperately for consistency over recent months and faces a pressure-free Ramat Hasharon, which is just happy to be playing in the championship playoffs.

Also in the championship playoffs, Kiryat Shmona visits Bnei Yehuda.

With just eight points separating the eight teams in the relegation playoffs, even Ashdod SC in seventh place is in danger of facing demotion to the National League.

Ashdod (35 points) doesn’t host Beitar Jerusalem (33) until Monday night, by which time the two could find themselves even closer to the relegation zone.

On Saturday, Hapoel Ramat Gan (28) welcomes Hapoel Beersheba (30), which has lost five straight matches, while Maccabi Netanya (27) visits Hapoel Acre (27) in a showdown between the league’s two bottom sides.

One of Netanya’s foreign players was arrested on Thursday morning in connection with the murder of Zahava Chukol, who was found dead outside the Carmel Hotel in the city.

The player was released to five days of house arrest by the Petah Tikva Magistrates Court and will be able to play for the team should the Police’s appeal of the decision be turned down by the district court on Friday. (See full story, page 6) Also Monday, Hapoel Haifa (31), which has won four of five matches and is unbeaten in its past six contests, visits Bnei Sakhnin (29).

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