Hapoel Tel Aviv 311.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
The battle for the Premier League title will reach a fever pitch on Saturday
night when Maccabi Haifa hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in a
crunch showdown between the two most dominant forces in Israeli soccer in recent
Last season, Hapoel beat Haifa 1-0 on the road at the same stage
of the campaign to leapfrog to the top of the standings. Tel Aviv would
relinquish first place in the subsequent weeks before eventually edging the
Greens for the championship on goal difference thanks to Eran Zahavi’s stoppage
time winner against Betar Jerusalem in the final match of the
Haifa is the team facing a must-win situation this season,
trailing Hapoel by one point, just two weeks after it held a seven-point gap over
the reigning champion.
The halving of point totals ahead of the
championship playoffs, coupled with a draw and a defeat in two consecutive
league matches against Maccabi Netanya, saw Haifa surrender first position to
Hapoel on Monday thanks to Toto Tamuz’s 86th minute winner in the 2-1 victory
over Bnei Yehuda.
Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv seemed to be the one stuttering
towards the finish line, winning only two of five matches.
However, it is
Haifa which has looked out of sorts in its last two encounters against Netanya,
while Hapoel eked out wins over Hapoel Ramat Gan and Bnei Yehuda to move into
the driving seat ahead of Saturday’s showdown and the final four matches of the
“We showed character by beating Bnei Yehuda, but I think that
the match at Kiryat Eliezer will be a completely different story,” said Hapoel’s
midfield maestro Gili Vermut, who has struggled with a groin injury in recent
weeks, but is still expected to start on Saturday.
“Despite the recent
results, I don’t feel that momentum is on our side. We are only ahead by a
single point and the title race is wide open and the momentum could change with
“Playing at Kiryat Eliezer is always difficult and I think
both teams have an equal chance of winning. Haifa has home-court advantage and
will pressure us from the start. I don’t think that the winner in this match
will guarantee itself the championship, but if we take all three points that
will be a significant step in the right direction.”
Hapoel will be
without influential midfielder Avihai Yadin on Saturday, after he was suspended
for one match by the Israel Football Association disciplinary court on Wednesday
for provoking Betar Jerusalem fans following Tel Aviv’s 1-0 victory in the State
However, Tel Aviv coach Eli Gutman will welcome back
defenders Dedi Ben- Dayan and Danny Bondarv from injury, and apart from Yadin
and Itai Shechter – who is out injured until the end of the season – he’ll have
a full squad to pick from.
Haifa coach Elisha Levy has no injuries or
suspensions to worry about and could name captain Yaniv Katan in the starting
lineup for the first time since the Greens were thrashed 4-1 by Tel Aviv when
the teams last met at Bloomfield Stadium two months ago.
Levy’s men have
lost three straight league encounters to Hapoel, also falling 2-0 to the Reds at
Kiryat Eliezer in November, but defender Arik Benado is still optimistic his
team can win on Saturday.
“Before Hapoel’s recent run against us we had a
run of our own and we will see which team is better on Saturday,” said the
37-year-old Benado, who knows all about big matches. “We need to know how to be
mentally strong for money-time matches like this. I believe we can do
“I can’t explain our slipups in the last two matches, but we have
shown this season that we can win difficult games.
We had a tough time
recovering from what happened last season and the only real remedy for what
occurred is to take the championship this time, and to do so we need to win on
In the two other championship playoff matches on Saturday,
Maccabi Netanya hosts Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Bnei
Betar Jerusalem can all but secure itself another season of
top-flight soccer on Saturday with a home win over Hapoel Petah Tikva in the
relegation playoffs, while Bnei Sakhnin welcomes Ashdod SC and Hapoel Ramat Gan
faces Hapoel Ashkelon.
In the mid-table playoffs, Hapoel Haifa hosts
Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Acre travels south to play Hapoel Beersheba.