Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Avi Rikan (left) celebrates with teammates Yuval Spungin (center) and Jean-Sylvain Babin (right).
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
The top three teams in the Premier League standings will enter the championship playoffs separated by just two points after Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated Maccabi Petah Tikva 2-0 on Monday night in the final match of the regular season.
Tel Aviv remained in third place, but closed back to within two points of leader Hapoel Beersheba, with Beitar Jerusalem in second place, one point ahead of the yellow-and-blue.
The league will be split into two starting from next weekend, with the top six teams to play each other twice more for 10 matches each to decide the league title. The bottom eight sides face one another once more for seven games each to determine the battle against relegation.
After winning just three of its previous six league matches, Maccabi Tel Aviv had little trouble overcoming Petah Tikva, with Iceland striker Vidar Orn Kjartansson scoring his first league goal in almost two months to break the deadlock in the 17th minute. Avi Rikan effectively clinched the victory with a sensational strike from the edge of the box with the final kick of the first half.
Nick Blackman’s poor penalty was saved by Yossi Ginzburg in the 73rd minute and Tel Aviv settled for a two-goal win, registering its sixth clean sheet in the past seven matches.
Maccabi, which hosts Hapoel Haifa in its first playoff match, looks set to enter the final stretch with a full squad, with forward Omer Atzili returning to full training last week after four months out injured due to a fracture in his right foot.
The yellow-and-blue’s title rivals aren’t as fortunate, with both Beersheba and Beitar set to be without key players at the start of the playoffs.
Beersheba received some good news on Sunday when an MRI on defender Miguel Vitor’s knee didn’t show any new damage to his problematic joint. Vitor has played just six league matches for Beersheba this season and had only returned from a three-month absence last week due to an injury to the same knee. He seems unlikely to play again this season, with surgery to repair previous damage to his knee one of the options being considered as he hasn’t managed to stay healthy this season.
Nigerian forward Anthony Nawkaeme is also doubtful for the team’s playoff opener against Bnei Yehuda at Turner Stadium.
Beitar is set to be without star striker Itay Shechter for at least three weeks after he suffered a left thigh injury in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Hapoel Ra’anana. Beitar hosts Maccabi Netanya in its playoff opener.
Meanwhile, Israel Football Association chairman Ofer Eini announced on Monday that he will not be seeking another term. Eini replaced Avi Luzon in July 2014 and will mainly be remembered for helping the association to significantly reduce its debts and derailing the Palestinian bid to get Israel expelled from FIFA.
Eini’s replacement will be selected in July in a vote by the members of the IFA’s general assembly.