Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Omer Atzili.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Maccabi Tel Aviv finally picked up its first points of the Premier League championship playoffs on Saturday night, beating Bnei Yehuda 2-0.
A superb free kick by Omer Atzili (63) broke the deadlock and a Dor Micha (72) tap-in, four minutes after Bnei Yehuda’s Roei Gordana was sent off, secured Maccabi’s first victory in more than a month.
The three points brought Tel Aviv within nine points of leader Hapoel Beersheba with five matches to play. But the true significance of the triumph is the six-point gap the yellowand- blue opened over Maccabi Netanya in fifth place, which won’t be good enough to book a place in the Europa League in 2018/19.
“We entered the playoffs two points behind first place and suddenly before this game we found ourselves 12 points behind,” said Maccabi coach Jordi Cruyff. “It is difficult to accept the new situation and I hope that all together we can make that switch and understand our reality. We need to fight for sure because we are not near our objective. We have a lot of tough games coming up and we have to be a lot better than today if we want to compete.”
What has become a two-horse race for the title resumes on Sunday, when two-time defending champion Hapoel Beersheba visits Netanya. Beersheba is coming off a dramatic 2-2 draw with Hapoel Haifa after netting a 94th-minute equalizer to extend its unbeaten streak at Turner Stadium to 51 matches. Strange scheduling has seen Beersheba play just five of its past 16 league games away from Turner over the past four months, but it has triumphed in four of them, each time by a 1-0 score-line.
That run started in mid-December following a 1-0 loss at Netanya, one of just three defeats suffered by Beersheba all season.
Netanya entered the campaign with few expectations in its first year back in the top flight following one season in the National League. It impressed on its way to a berth in the championship playoffs, but it seemed that it had little to play for in the final 10 matches, sitting in fifth place, seven points behind Hapoel Haifa in fourth, which will lead to Europa League qualification. But after beginning the playoffs with a 2-0 defeat to Beitar Jerusalem, Netanya steamrolled Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-1, drew 1-1 with Haifa and beat Bnei Yehuda 3-1 last week.
That was the team’s fifth win from the past seven matches and brought it within three points of Maccabi.
Beitar Jerusalem, which cut the gap on the top to four points with last week’s win over Tel Aviv, visits Hapoel Haifa on Monday.
The battle against relegation has still not been decided, but Hapoel Ashkelon’s hopes of survival suffered a major blow on Saturday.
Ashkelon dropped to a 2-0 defeat to rock-bottom Hapoel Acre, which is all but certain to be demoted despite the win.
Ben Azubel (13) and Aliko Bala (60) scored for Acre, which is still eight points behind Ashdod SC and safety with only three matches to play.
Ashdod can officially relegate Acre and all but secure its top-flight status with a win over Hapoel Ra’anana on Monday. Ashdod has a four-point cushion over Asheklon in the fight to avoid joining Acre in the National League.