Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Vidar Orn Kjartansson.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Only goal difference separates Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv at the top of the Premier League standings after the yellow-and-blue beat Bnei Yehuda 2-0 in Netanya on Saturday to move tied on points with the reigning champion.
Barak Itzahki’s opener in the 10th minute gave Maccabi a deserved lead, but the hosts had to wait until the second minute of stoppage time before securing the victory via Vidar Orn Kjartansson’s league-leading 15th goal of the season.
Maccabi’s title challenge was floundering three months ago when it trailed Beersheba by 10 points. But Tel Aviv’s revival since the sacking of coach Shota Arveladze at the start of January combined with Beersheba’s decline in form, especially on the road, saw the gap shrink consistently until it was completely erased with Saturday’s win, Maccabi’s seventh from the past eight league matches.
Beersheba can reestablish a three-point lead when it welcomes Hapoel Kfar Saba on Monday.
“Our biggest goal is to keep winning and not to focus on what Beersheba is doing,” said Itzhaki.
Maccabi visits the struggling Hapoel Ashkelon next weekend and hosts Hapoel Haifa in its final regular season game ahead of the start of the championship playoffs.
It will be confident of making it four wins in a row under new coach Lito Vidigal to ensure it will be no more than three points back of Beersheba entering the final 10-match run-in to the season.
Elsewhere Saturday, Maccabi Haifa’s home struggles continued, with the Greens losing 1-0 to Ashdod SC. Haifa was aiming to make it two wins in a row under new coach Guy Luzon.
The last, and only time Haifa had won two straight league matches this season was back in October, with the team winning just one of its last eight games under previous coach Rene Meulensteen before defeating Kfar Saba 2-0 last Saturday in Luzon’s debut.
Haifa could have taken a significant step towards securing its place in the top six championship playoffs with another victory on Saturday.
However, it instead ended the day in seventh place, trailing Ironi Kiryat Shmona on goal difference, after remaining without a win at Haifa Stadium since November.
H aifa played with 10 men from the 50th minute following San Menahem’s sending off and Ashdod’s Or Inbrum scored the only goal of the match in the 67th minute.
“We still have two more regular season games and I’m sure we will play better next week,” said Luzon. Haifa visits Beitar Jerusalem next week before completing the regular season against Hapoel Ra’anana.
Qualification for the championship playoffs will not only keep alive Haifa’s hopes of reaching European competition next season, but will also guarantee the club big pay days with additional home matches against Beersheba, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem.
Kiryat Shmona moved back up to sixth place after snapping a four-match losing streak with a 1-1 draw at Hapoel Ashkelon.
David Manga gave Ashkelon the lead in the 30th minute, with Shoval Gozlan equalizing in the 74th minute, scoring Kiryat Shmona’s first goal in five games.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv remained in last place, drawing 0-0 with Ra’anana.
Ra’anana striker Shimon Abuhazira had his penalty saved by Boris Kleyman in the 34th minute.
On Sunday, Beitar Jerusalem visits Bnei Sakhnin and Maccabi Petah Tikva welcomes Hapoel Haifa.