(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba will enter its showdown with Maccabi Tel Aviv within striking distance of the summit after opening the Premier League championship playoffs on Saturday with a 3-0 win over Maccabi Petah Tikva at Vasermil Stadium.
Beersheba, which visits the league-leader and two-time defending champion at Bloomfield Stadium in two weeks time following the international break, closed within two points of first place on Saturday ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s match against Maccabi Haifa on Sunday.
Saturday marked the beginning of the championship and relegation playoffs, with the top six sides to face each other twice more for the title, while the bottom eight teams will play one another once more to decide the battle against relegation.
Beersheba took a 27th-minute lead through Dovev Gabay’s penalty, but found itself with 10 men after Ben Biton was harshly shown a straight red card for a rash tackle in the 44th minute. However, just three minutes later Petah Tikva’s Tomer Elbaz was sent off with a second yellow card after blocking the ball with his hand.
Maor Buzaglo all but secured the win seven minutes into the second half, making the most of goalkeeper Itamar Nitzan’s wayward pass, before capping the scoring seven minutes from time.
“It was a must-win game for us,” said Beersheba coach Elisha Levy after seeing his team record its 12th win from 14 home matches this season. “We won our first game in the playoff and now we need to win our second match as well. The game against Maccabi is very important, but nothing will be decided in that match because I think that all the teams will drop a lot of points in the championship playoffs.”
Beersheba extended its gap over Ironi Kiryat Shmona, which will aim to kick-start its unraveling campaign on Sunday.
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Kiryat Shmona led the standings for a three-month stretch, but has won just one of its last eight games, losing its past three to fall seven points behind first place.
Kiryat Shmona will not have an easy time returning to winning ways when it hosts in-form Beitar Jerusalem, which has won three straight games.
Hapoel Tel Aviv took another significant step towards securing its Premier League survival on Saturday, beating rock-bottom Hapoel Acre 2-0 at Bloomfield.
First-half goals by Dudu Biton (16) and Shlomi Azulay (35) secured the three points and moved Tel Aviv nine points clear of the relegation zone after Hapoel Petah Tikva lost 3-1 to Maccabi Netanya.
“This was a life or death match and I hope we can build on it,” said Tel Aviv coach Eli Cohen. “We can’t afford to be complacent. We will keep our foot on the gas until we officially secure our top-flight status.”
Or Baruch (32), Diya Saba (48) - directly from a corner kick - and Gabriel Giurgiu (50) scored for Netanya, with Omri Altman (56) netting Petah Tikva’s consolation goal from the penalty spot.
The battle against relegation looks set to be fought out between Acre (22 points), Petah Tikva (23), Hapoel Haifa (26) and Ashdod SC (27) after all four teams suffered setbacks on Saturday.
Haifa was beaten 1-0 by Bnei Sakhnin, with Itzik Cohen scoring the winner for the hosts at Doha Stadium in the 25th minute.
Ashdod’s dismal run of results continued with a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Hapoel Ra’anana. Ashdod has gone winless in its past nine matches, losing its third straight game on Saturday after Anthony Nwakaeme (7, 66), Evans Kangwa (41) and Shoval Gozlan (75) scored for Ra’anana.
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