Hapoel Beersheba’s Elyaniv Barda (R).
(photo credit: MEIR EVEN HAIM)
Hapoel Beersheba coach Elisha Levy has dismissed his side’s Premier League title hopes more than once this season. However, he will struggle to make light of his team’s chances should it beat Hapoel Haifa at Sammy Ofer Stadium on Saturday and close within three points of the summit.
Two-time defending champion and league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv doesn’t face Beitar Jerusalem until Monday night, while second-place Ironi Kiryat Shmona only hosts Maccabi Haifa on Sunday, affording Beersheba an ideal opportunity to place a little pressure on the main challengers.
The only reason Beersheba isn’t dictating the pace at the moment is its poor form away from Vasermil Stadium. Beersheba has dominated opponents at home so far this season, winning 10 of 12 matches, including a 2-1 victory over Kiryat Shmona last week, while only losing once.
On the other hand, it has won only three of 12 games on the road, including only once over its past nine away matches since November.
“We have proven that we can beat any team at home, but we will have to change that on the road. I see no reason why that shouldn’t happen,” said coach Levy.
“We are close to Maccabi Tel Aviv. I won’t say that we are dreaming of winning the championship, but we are in a good position. The most important thing is that we build on our form against Kiryat Shmona.”
While Levy continues to do his best to lower expectations, not all of his players are echoing the same sentiment.
Captain Elyaniv Barda netted a stunning winner to secure the victory over Kiryat Shmona, ending the match with two goals after failing to score in league action since September.
“I don’t remember ever going so long without a goal,” said Barda. “Maccabi Tel Aviv has a pretty good lead, but we won’t give up until the end. Anything is possible in soccer and I’m an optimistic man. It all depends on us, but we will have to start winning the types of matches we have failed to until now.”
Beersheba will be brimming with confidence after also advancing to the State Cup semifinals on Wednesday, recording a 4-1 aggregate win over Maccabi Yavne of the National League following a 1-1 draw in the second leg.
Beersheba will be joined in the last four by Maccabi Tel Aviv and National League clubs Hapoel Afula and Ahi Nazareth.
Beersheba’s opponent on Saturday has very different concerns, with Haifa still only three points clear of Hapoel Petah Tikva and the relegation zone.
After claiming a shocking win over Maccabi Tel Aviv in Tal Banin’s debut as coach, Haifa dropped to a 2-0 defeat to Hapoel Ra’anana last week, leaving it in a precarious position.
Hapoel Petah Tikva hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva in the derby on Saturday, with the latter looking to recover from its surprise cup exit at the hands of Afula.
Maccabi Petah Tikva is aiming to secure its place in the top-six championship playoffs, with five teams battling for the remaining three berths entering the final two games of the regular season before the league is split in two.
Petah Tikva (35 points), Beitar (34) and Ra’anana (34) are in the driving seat, but Maccabi Haifa (31) and Maccabi Netanya (29) are still hoping to sneak in.
Ra’anana can take a massive step towards wrapping up its qualification by beating Bnei Sakhnin at Doha Stadium on Saturday, while anything but a win for Netanya over Hapoel Acre will officially end its hopes.
Rock-bottom Acre recorded its first win in three months last week, beating the floundering Hapoel Tel Aviv 1-0 thanks to Yuval Avidor’s winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Acre entered the contest on the back of a 12-match winless streak, failing to even score a goal in its previous six games.
Tel Aviv remained four points above the relegation zone and coach Eli Cohen knows his team is set to battle demotion until the end of the season.
“This is a disaster,” he said. “We will have to fight for our lives throughout the relegation playoffs.”