Beitar Jerusalem's Omer Atzili leaps in celebration.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Beitar Jerusalem all but secured its place in the championship playoffs while handing Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Premier League title hopes a blow on Monday night, claiming a 1-0 victory at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa.
Omer Atzili scored the only goal of the match in the 44th minute, smashing the ball in from the edge of the box after Itzik Cohen stole it from Maccabi goalkeeper Juan Pablo.
Beitar, which hosted the match in Haifa after being punished by the Israel Football Association for the unruly and racist behavior of its fans, registered its fourth win in six matches, climbing up to fourth place ahead of its final game of the regular season against Hapoel Ra’anana next week.
“We didn’t back down and we played Maccabi as equals,” said Beitar coach Guy Levy. “We still have plenty of room for improvement and we need to continue and work hard on the training field. We have a lot of young players and we need to make sure they don’t get carried away.”
Maccabi had an opportunity to move seven points clear at the top of the standings after Ironi Kiryat Shmona lost 1-0 to Maccabi Haifa on Sunday. However, the two-time defending champion dropped to its second defeat in the past three matches on Monday and remains just four points ahead of Kiryat Shmona, with Hapoel Beersheba only one point further back.
“We didn’t take advantage of our opportunity and we have to move forward,” said Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran. “We controlled the game but we couldn’t score.”
Maccabi midfielder Eran Zahavi remained stuck on 20 goals, being frustrated by Beitar’s defense throughout the contest.
“We wanted to build on our cup win over Kiryat Shmona, but we didn’t show it on the field,” he said. “We weren’t as determined as our last match. They played well on defense and we couldn’t score and they deserve credit. Nevertheless, we are still in first place and we will fix whatever needs fixing.”
Meanwhile, Israel national team coach Eli Gutman announced a 21-man preliminary squad for Wednesday’s training session in Shefayim in what will mark the beginning of the blueand- white’s preparations for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Wales and Belgium on March 28 and 31, respectively.
The training session will be held without any of the Israelis who play abroad and will mainly allow Gutman to get a close look at the players he is considering naming in the squad for the qualifiers.
Maccabi Haifa’s Yossi Benayoun and Eliran Atar were not called up despite their recent improved form, likely meaning that they will also miss out later this month.
Gutman’s biggest problem is who to play at right back. Haifa’s Eyal Meshumar, who has played every minute of the qualifying campaign so far in that position, has lost his place with the Greens, not playing in the team’s past seven matches.
Gutman nevertheless invited him to Shefayim as he seeks a solution to the problem of Meshumar’s lack of playing time.
Israel currently leads Group B with a perfect nine points from three matches, with Wales in second place, one point further back from four games, while favorite Belgium has five points from its first three contests.