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(photo credit: Allon Sinai)
The Premier League season is past its halfway mark and the championship race is heating up. Betar Jerusalem is still enjoying a four-point lead at the top of the standings, but no fewer than six clubs have a decent chance of making life tough for the yellow-and-black.
Betar had a six-point cushion two weeks ago thanks to its impressive 3-0 win over Maccabi Haifa. But last week's lackluster draw with Maccabi Petah Tikva has rekindled the challengers' hopes of putting up a fight for the title.
Yossi Mizrahi's team will have a chance to increase its lead this weekend when it takes on Eyal Lachman's Hapoel Petah Tikva in a relatively easy fixture. Petah Tikva has won only two matches so far this season and is in last place.
"Win this game for Toto Tamuz," said Betar owner Arkadi Gaydamak after learning of the Interior Ministry's decision to deny the striker permanent citizenship. "Don't do this just for me. Do this for Toto and dedicate the victory to him.
"We're getting closer to the championship and I won't accept any excuse on Saturday. We have to forget last week's poor draw with Maccabi Petah Tikva and come out strong in order to collect all three points from this away game."
The frontrunner has suffered a serious blow with the season-ending injury sustained by Omri Afek. The star right-winger had surgery on Thursday to take care of his hip problem, which had kept him out of action for the last two months.
Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts struggling Ashdod SC at Bloomfield Stadium with clear intentions of reviving its domestic campaign. The reds pulled off a heroic 2-1 win over Glasgow Rangers in the UEFA Cup on Wednesday and will seek to duplicate the same form on Saturday afternoon.
"We played well against Rangers," Salim Toama commented. "But the most important thing to us is the domestic competition. The main goal is to qualify for next year's European competition and that means we have to beat Ashdod.
"We're playing at home and that should make the difference."
Maccabi Netanya travels to face Uri Malmilian's Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan, in a match that could boost Reuven Atar's club's chances of joining the chase after Betar. Netanya is riding an impressive eight-game unbeaten streak and seems to be the firm favorite on Saturday.
Atar is expected to field an ultra-offensive formation, consisting of no fewer than three forwards. Okocha, Moussa Sanogo and Itai Shechter will spearhead the visitors' attack, with Tamir Cohen filling the midfield void after returning from his one-game suspension.
Other Premier League Matchday 21 fixtures include four teams which are desperate to escape the relegation zone. Maccabi Petah Tikva takes on Nitzan Shirazi's Bnei Yehuda, while Freddy David's Maccabi Herzliya plays host to Hapoel Kfar Saba in a crucial bottom-of-the-standings encounter.
Second-place Maccabi Tel Aviv travels to Kiryat Eliezer to face a confident Maccabi Haifa in the Matchday 21 finale Sunday night. The reigning Premier League champion is coming off an impressive 0-0 draw against CSKA Moscow in a UEFA Cup match on Wednesday and will be looking to climb up the league standings.
Saturday's matches: Hapoel Tel Aviv vs Ashdod SC, 3 p.m. (live on Sport1 [Channel 54]); Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan vs Maccabi Netanya, 5:15 p.m. (live on Sport1); Maccabi Herzliya vs Hapoel Kfar Saba, 6:15 p.m.; Bnei Yehuda vs Maccabi Petah Tikva, 7 p.m.; Hapoel Petah Tikva vs Betar Jerusalem, 7:30 p.m. (live on Sport1). Sunday's match: Maccabi Haifa vs Maccabi Tel Aviv, 8:50 p.m. (live on Channel 10).
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