Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi .
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The month of February got off to an ideal start for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
A comfortable 2-0 win over Hapoel Tel Aviv gave it a four-point gap at the top of the Premier League standings, with the yellow-and-blue triumphing for the ninth time in 11 matches, extending its streak of clean sheets to seven straight games.
However, the remainder of the month has been a complete disaster by Maccabi’s standards, with coach Pako Ayestaran’s team going winless in four matches over all competitions.
For the first time in more than three years, Maccabi has gone three consecutive league matches without picking up three points before being held to a 1-1 draw by Ironi Kiryat Shmona in the first leg of the State Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Shimon Abu Hazeira’s equalizer with the final kick of the match canceled out Eran Zahavi’s opener and set up a mouthwatering return leg at Bloomfield Stadium next Wednesday.
But before it turns its attention back to lifting the cup for the first time since 2005, Maccabi will be desperate to get its league title defense back on track when it hosts Bnei Sakhnin on Saturday in the last day of February.
Maccabi required an 85th-minute equalizer by Barak Badash to draw 1-1 with Kiryat Shmona in league action two weeks ago and maintain its unbeaten home record this season.
The yellow-and-blue has registered eight wins and three draws from 11 home matches, amassing an impressive goal difference of 26-6 at Bloomfield.
With the pressure multiplying on coach Pako with every additional mediocre performance, the Spaniard could really use an emphatic win on Saturday.
Second-place Kiryat Shmona doesn’t visit third-place Hapoel Beersheba until Sunday night, meaning Maccabi can move four points clear at the top for at least 24 hours with a win over Sakhnin.
Maccabi beat Sakhnin 3-1 at Doha Stadium in December in what proved to be coach Guy Levy’s final game at the helm.
Eli Cohen took over, and despite losing just three of 12 matches since, Sakhnin is still just five points off the relegation zone.
“We are relaxed. There is no pressure here,” said Maccabi captain Sheran Yeini after Wednesday’s draw at Kiryat Shmona.
“February has indeed been our worst month of the season. But this is the toughest time of the season for all the teams. All the big teams in all the leagues drop points during this period. Teams are fighting for their lives and we need to overcome that and find a way to win.”
The Maccabi players celebrated Zahavi’s goal on Wednesday by running to the bench to embrace with the substitutes and the coaching staff.
“We ran to the bench to show that we are a team and that we all celebrate together,” explained Yeini. “We don’t always do that, but this is a time when we need to be united and show our character.”
Perhaps the best news for Maccabi on Wednesday was that Zahavi finally broke out of his mini-slump.
After a remarkable 2014 in which he scored 35 league goals, Zahavi got 2015 off to a mediocre start by his standards.
Following 17 consecutive league matches in which he netted 25 goals, Zahavi had scored just three goals in eight matches over all competitions in 2015 until Wednesday, two of them from the penalty spot.
Another scoring streak as Maccabi enters the business end of the season could prove crucial, with the midfielder needing 11 goals in Tel Aviv’s remaining 13 league matches to equal Nissim Elmalich’s record of 30 goals in a season set in the 1954/55 campaign.
Each team has just three more matches to play before the league is split in two, 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.
There are currently just six points separating Beitar Jerusalem in fifth place and Hapoel Haifa in 12th, with Hapoel Petah Tikva and the relegation zone just three points further back.
Petah Tikva (22 points) hosts Beitar (31) on Saturday, while Hapoel Tel Aviv (26) visits rock-bottom Hapoel Acre (15), Hapoel Ra’anana (31) hosts Hapoel Haifa (25) and Maccabi Petah Tikva (34) visits Ashdod (26).
On Monday, Maccabi Haifa (28) hosts Maccabi Netanya (29).