Maccabi Haifa captain Yossi Benayoun celebrates after scoring his team’s winner in a 1-0 victory at Ironi Kiryat Shmona, March 9, 2015.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Yossi Benayoun’s first season back in Israel after 13 years could hardly have been more frustrating.
The 34-year-old midfielder’s much-anticipated return got off to a delayed start due to a knee injury, which ultimately saw him miss eight of Maccabi Haifa’s first 10 matches of the season.
He didn’t score his first goal until Haifa’s 13th match of the campaign, a 4-0 win over Hapoel Haifa in the derby in December, only to miss three more weeks of action in January after his knee flared up.
All the while, Benayoun was forced to watch Haifa’s season unravel from the sidelines, with the Greens never living up to their billing as a title contender and at one stage even seeming on course for a fight against relegation.
Haifa’s struggles cost coach Alexsandar Stanojevic his job, but there was initially little improvement under his replacement Marco Balbul, with the Greens winning just one of their first six matches with the new boss.
However, over the past month Haifa has seemed to have finally found its way, with Benayoun fit at last and January signings Itay Shechter, Eliran Atar and Mohamed Kamara all quickly settling at the club.
Atar has scored four goals in the past four matches, while Benayoun has netted the winner in Haifa’s last two games, against Maccabi Netanya and Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
Haifa has won three of four matches and its first winning streak in more than three months has got it ideally placed to qualify for the championship playoffs entering the final weekend of the regular season.
The league will be split in two following Monday’s match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Petah Tikva, with the top six to face each other twice more for the title, while the bottom eight sides will play one another once more to decide the battle against relegation.
The Greens host Hapoel Haifa in the derby at Sammy Ofer Stadium on Saturday, knowing a win will guarantee them a place in the top six and keep alive their hopes of qualifying for Europe.
Even fourth place at the end of the season could be enough to reach the Europa League should Maccabi Tel Aviv or Hapoel Beersheba win the State Cup and finish in the top three as expected.
In the draw for the cup semifinals earlier this week, Maccabi was paired with Ahi Nazareth of the National League while Beersheba was pitted against Hapoel Afula of the second division.
“We have our fate in our own hands and I hope we can do it,” said Benayoun, with eight of Haifa’s 10 total wins this season coming in the 13 matches in which the captain started. “We need to first qualify for the playoffs before we can start thinking of booking our place in Europe.”
Hapoel Haifa will be just as desperate for the points on Saturday, holding just a three-point gap on the relegation zone.
The team has shown an impressive fighting spirit since Tal Banin took charge last month, beating Maccabi Tel Aviv while also drawing 1-1 with Hapoel Beersheba last weekend.
Besides Maccabi Haifa (34 points), three more teams are battling for the remaining three spots in the championship playoffs.
After beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 on Monday, only an unexpected combination of results will deny Beitar Jerusalem (37) its place in the top six.
Unless Beitar loses by at least two goals to Hapoel Ra’anana on Saturday and both Maccabi Petah Tikva and Maccabi Haifa win, Jerusalem will qualify.
Petah Tikva also has nothing to worry about as long as it beats Hapoel Tel Aviv, while Ra’anana needs to either defeat Beitar by at least two goals or avoid a loss and hope for some favors in order to advance.
Also Saturday, Maccabi Netanya visits Ashdod SC and Kiryat Shmona aims to get its title challenge back on track when it goes to rock-bottom Hapoel Acre. Kiryat Shmona is just four points back of league-leader Maccabi Tel Aviv despite winning only one of its past seven matches.
The yellow-and-blue, which has won just one of its last five games, welcomes Hapoel Petah Tikva on Monday, while Beersheba, which is five points off the top, hosts Bnei Sakhnin on Sunday.