Hapoel Beersheba striker Elyaniv Barda (right) and Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Nikola Mitrovic.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Maccabi Tel Aviv has got one hand on the Premier League championship trophy after opening an eight-point gap at the top of the standings with a 3-1 win over second-place Hapoel Beersheba at Bloomfield Stadium on Monday night.
With eight more matches still to play this season, the title race is far from officially over. However, it is hard to see the yellow-and-blue squandering such a lead and failing to claim a third straight championship, especially after registering a deserved win over its main challenger.
Beersheba’s defense gifted Eran Zahavi the opener after less than three minutes, but Maor Buzaglo leveled the score two minutes into the second half. A balanced match would ensue, but Maccabi crucially moved back in front through Tal Ben-Haim in the 79th minute and Zahavi wrapped up the win with his 24th goal of the season four minutes later.
“This was a really important win for us,” said Maccabi coach Pako Ayestaran. “Now the gap is bigger but we have to keep going because you never know. Stranger things have happened in football.”
Beersheba coach Elisha Levy lamented his team’s defeat, but refused to throw in the white towel.
“Both teams can still drop a lot of points so there is no need to wrap up the season just yet,” he explained. “We had some chances to decide the match at 1-1, but we failed to convert them and then lost concentration, allowing Maccabi to score two goals and win the match.”
Maccabi couldn’t have gotten the match off to a better start. Instead of clearing Eden Ben-Basat’s meek cross as expected, Beersheba defender Ofir Davidzada allowed the ball to go through his legs, leaving Zahavi with the simple task of slotting in the opener into an empty net.
However, it would be Beersheba which controlled the possession in the subsequent minutes, although it registered few chances.
The visitors finally had something to show for their efforts in the second minute of the second half, with Buzaglo equalizing after rounding goalkeeper Juan Pablo and coolly skipping past Nosa Igiebor’s challenge to slot the ball in from close range.
Maccabi was jolted into life by the equalizer and regained the lead in the 79th minute. Substitute Ben-Haim surged to the edge of the box in characteristic fashion before firing past Austin Ejide.
Zahavi secured the three points four minutes later and Maccabi fans were already in full celebration mode by the time Beersheba’s Siraj Nasar was sent off with a straight red card in the 89th minute.
Following four straight defeats and after going two months without a victory, Ironi Kiryat Shmona finally returned to winning ways on Monday, beating Maccabi Petah Tikva 1-0 on the road.
Mindaugas Panka scored the only goal of the match in the 59th minute to boost Kiryat Shmona’s hopes of European qualification. Kiryat Shmona lost just two of its first 24 matches, but its title challenge unraveled after it suffered four consecutive losses. However, Monday’s win opened a seven-point gap over Beitar Jerusalem in fourth place to keep the side on course for a Europa League berth.
“We went through a very tough period and we really needed this win,” said Kiryat Shmona coach Barak Bachar.
“The most important thing was to win and I think this will give us a lot of confidence going forward.”