Maccabi Tel Aviv striker Barak Itzhaki (left) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s second goal in last night’s 3-1 win over Hapoel Ashkelon..
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv climbed to first place in the Premier League standings for the first time this season on Sunday night, beating Hapoel Ashkelon 3-1 in Netanya to move ahead of Hapoel Beersheba on goal difference.
Maccabi improved to 41 points from 19 matches with its sixth straight victory, taking its goal difference to plus-16 (35-19). Beersheba also has 41 points and a plus-16 goal difference (31-15), but dropped to second place as it has scored fewer goals than Maccabi.
The yellow-and-blue found itself in a surprise deficit after seven minutes on Sunday, with Dovev Gabay breaking the deadlock. The hosts would level the score just seven minutes later after left-back Ofir Davidzada netted his first league goal in six years.
Maccabi didn’t complete its comeback until the 65th minute, with Barak Itzhaki finding the back of the net with a close range header. The hosts ensured they would climb up to first place for the first time since December 2016 when Eliran Atar slotted in a penalty in the 87th minute.
“We still have a lot to improve,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff. “We make it difficult for ourselves conceding a soft goal and created a mountain for ourselves to climb. Against teams that are very closed it is difficult to find space, but we played better in the second half and I think we deserved to win.”
Cruyff insisted that being in first place is almost irrelevant at this stage of the campaign.
“It shouldn’t mean anything to us. It’s not important where you are now. It is important where you are at the end of the season,” explained Cruyff.
It was just over a month ago that Maccabi trailed Beersheba by seven points and looked to be in danger of losing touch in the title race.
“I think there was a moment where we all stepped up,” noted Cruyff. “We all understood that things were going completely in the wrong direction.
The first thing you need to show is character and play with a certain level of aggressiveness on the pitch. Then we tried to find a system that gave us a bit more defensive security and also win our battles in the midfield. But in the end more than the system or anything else, I think it was more the players stepping up to a higher level. I know that to win things you have to suffer first. We suffered some difficulties along the way and now it is time for us to recover what we lost and show that we are a candidate for the title.”
Elsewhere Sunday, Maccabi Netanya failed to win for the seventh time in nine matches, drawing 1-1 at Maccabi Petah Tikva. Dudi Tiram gave Netanya the lead in the 64th minute, with Petah Tikva equalizing through a Romario Pires penalty eight minutes later.
On Monday, Beitar Jerusalem looks to keep pace with the leaders and close back to within a single point of the summit when it hosts Bnei Sakhnin.
Beitar had its three-match winning streak snapped with last week’s 1-1 draw against Ironi Kiryat Shmona and will be wary of Sakhnin, which will be guided for the first time by new coach Tal Banin.
The former Israel international replaced Felix Naim, who was sacked over two weeks ago. Banin hasn’t coached since he was fired by Hapoel Haifa in December 2015.
Sakhnin can close to within four points of Netanya and sixth place, which leads to the championship playoffs at the end of the regular season.
“I don’t know how Sakhnin will play under its new coach so we need to be ready for every scenario,” said Beitar coach Benny Ben-Zaken.
“Regardless of whether they sit back or push forward, we are playing at home and we need to focus on our job.”