(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Betar Jerusalem's lingering hopes of claiming a third straight league title suffered another blow on Thursday when the Israel Football Association disciplinary court handed it a one point deduction for its fans' racist chants during a victory at Maccabi Petah Tikva two weeks ago.
Betar, which was also given the additional punishment of having to face Maccabi Tel Aviv in front of empty stands in its next home match at Teddy Stadium, now trails top-of-the-table Maccabi Haifa by seven points with just five matches remaining in the season.
According to referee Haim Ya'akov, the Betar supporters shouted "Muhammad is dead" several times during the 2-0 victory in Petah Tikva on April 18.
Jerusalem, which began the season with a two-point deduction, agreed to a plea bargain and admitted to the charges earlier Thursday, hoping its suspended four-point deduction for being found guilty of a similar offense last year would not be activated.
However, IFA judge Israel Shimoni decided to partially activate the suspended sentence, explaining that if he wouldn't do so, it would undermine the IFA's previous ruling.
"Betar Jerusalem is extremely disappointed with the IFA disciplinary court's ruling, which canceled the plea bargain reached between the club and the IFA prosecutor," a Betar statement read.
"This decision significantly hurts Betar and its achievements on the soccer pitch. The club intends to appeal this outrageous ruling."
Betar defender Shimon Gershon was bitterly disappointed with Thursday's decision.
"I think the court could have settled for a punishment of one home match in front of empty stands, which is a serious enough punishment at this stage of the season," Gershon said.
"Deducting a point as well as the two points we were deducted to start of the season is a very harsh punishment, which hurts the team's chances of challenging for the championship."
Betar's players will have to put aside all the club's off-pitch problems when the team visits Hapoel Petah Tikva on Saturday.
Jerusalem has won seven of its last nine matches, while Petah Tikva has lost three straight.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv will have to return to winning ways if it is to leapfrog Maccabi Haifa at the summit of the Premier League and put pressure on the current league leader ahead of its match at Bnei Sakhnin on Monday.
Hapoel had won four straight matches before drawing 1-1 with Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday, but will still be confident of winning on the road at Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Saturday.
Since November, Kiryat Shmona has won just a single match, and the introduction of new coach Ran Ben-Shimon two weeks ago hasn't made any difference, with the team losing both its matches since he took charge.
Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan visits Maccabi Petah Tikva on Saturday, hoping to take advantage of the fact its two relegation rivals, Sakhnin and Kiryat Shmona, face the league's top two teams this weekend.
Also Saturday, Bnei Yehuda visits Ashdod SC and Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Maccabi Netanya.