(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Hapoel Tel Aviv welcomes Bnei Sakhnin to Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday evening, looking to strengthen its hold on fourth place and close in on European qualification.
Hapoel currently occupies fourth position by virtue of its superior goal difference over Maccabi Haifa, with Sakhnin just one point further back.
Only a top-three league finish guarantees a place in European competition next season, but should Hapoel Beersheba or Ironi Kiryat Shmona lift the State Cup as well as end the season among the first three, fourth place will also be sufficient for Europa League qualification.
Beersheba has already effectively wrapped up the runner-up position, holding a 12-point gap over Kiryat Shmona in third. Kiryat Shmona is seven points ahead of Hapoel and Haifa with seven matches remaining.
Beersheba and Kiryat Shmona face off in the cup semifinals next Wednesday.
Hapoel had hoped to challenge Maccabi Tel Aviv for the championship at the start of the season, but has already lost nine times in a disastrous campaign, conceding the third-most goals in the league.
Nevertheless, it can still end the season on a sweet note should it book a European berth. Hapoel has played some of its best soccer of the season in recent weeks, registering a goalless deadlock against Maccabi in the derby and beating Haifa 4-0 before drawing 1-1 at Beersheba last week.
Striker Omer Damari leads the league with 22 goals, eight goals shy of Nissim Elmalich’s record set in the 1954/55 campaign.
Sakhnin’s season was already crowned as a success once it secured its place in the top-six championship playoffs. However, last week’s surprise 2-1 victory at Haifa has thrust it into European contention.
Maccabi Haifa doesn’t play until Sunday night when it faces a daunting visit to Maccabi Tel Aviv at Bloomfield.
Beersheba can close to within five points of Maccabi for at least 24 hours should it beat Kiryat Shmona at Vasermil Stadium on Saturday in a preview of the cup semifinal.
Kiryat Shmona currently owns the second- longest unbeaten streak in the league behind the yellow-and-blue, extending its run to 10 matches with Monday’s 2-2 draw against the defending champion, which hasn’t lost in 12 games.
Despite its lowly position, Bnei Yehuda has tasted defeat only once in its past 11 contests, climbing out of the relegation zone with Sunday’s 1-0 triumph over Beitar Jerusalem.
Bnei Yehuda (26 points) visits Hapoel Acre (29) on Saturday, while Hapoel Ra’anana (28) hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva (24) in another direct showdown in the battle against relegation.
Also Saturday, rock-bottom Hapoel Ramat Hasharon (24) goes to Hapoel Haifa (31).
On Sunday, Beitar hosts Ashdod SC.