Hapoel Beersheba striker Ben Sahar (left) surges past Bnei Yehuda’s Marko Jovanovic.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba looks to maintain its comfortable hold on first place in the Premier League standings when it visits third-place Maccabi Petah Tikva on Saturday.
With an eight-point gap at the top, Beersheba is a clear favorite to defend its league title. However, while the team’s immediate focus is to win a second straight championship, it is all the while continuing to build for the future, making what could prove to be two key signings earlier this week.
Beersheba continued to implement its plan of bringing aboard the best local talent, signing 22-year-old Niv Zrihen and 19-year-old Amir Khalaila.
Both players signed four-and-a-half year deals, with Zrihen leaving Ashdod SC in a deal which also included the loan of Brazilian striker Lucio to Ashdod.
Khalaila didn’t feature for Sakhnin this season after refusing to sign a new contract with the club.
Their additions come on the back of the signing of 21-year-old Michael Ohana, who arrived from Ashdod on the last day of the summer transfer window, giving Beersheba a young trio to build on in the coming years.
Khalaila may be loaned out until the end of the season in order to gain more experience, while Zrihen could already feature on Saturday.
Star midfielder Maor Buzaglo might also return to the lineup against Petah Tikva after missing last week’s 2-1 win over Bnei Yehuda.
Buzaglo was suspended by the club for that match after calling out coach Barak Bachar on social media. Buzaglo claimed he was benched in the match against Maccabi Haifa for unprofessional reasons and club owner Alona Barkat responded with a harsh statement, saying he “crossed a red line.”
He looked to be on his way out of the club in the January transfer window, but that all changed after a meeting with club officials and Bachar earlier this week. The club ultimately chose to only hand him a lenient punishment, ruling that he will have to invite the entire squad to a dinner and post a public apology on social media, which he did on Monday.
Beersheba thrashed Petah Tikva 5-0 in their first meeting of the season three months ago, but Petah Tikva has lost just one of 12 matches since, winning three of its past four games after defeating Maccabi Haifa 2-0 last Saturday.
Beersheba can move 11 points clear at the top for at least 24 hours, with Maccabi Tel Aviv not hosting Bnei Sakhnin until Sunday. Maccabi will be guided by sports director Jordi Cruyff once more, but the Dutchman confirmed on Thursday that he expects to unveil a new head coach shortly.
“We know who we want as the new coach and we are working on it,” said Cruyff. “I hope that an announcement will come soon.”
Also Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Hapoel Ashkelon in a crucial showdown in the battle against relegation. Tel Aviv enters the match rock-bottom of the standings, nine points back of Ashkelon and safety.
Elsewhere, Maccabi Haifa goes to Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Hapoel Haifa hosts Hapoel Ra’anana.
On Sunday, Beitar Jerusalem visits Hapoel Kfar Saba and Bnei Yehuda faces Ashdod.