(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Betar Jerusalem's three-month reign at the top of the Premier League standings is in jeopardy this weekend.
Bloomfield Stadium hosts two of the matches with first-place implications on Saturday. Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv host Ashdod SC and Maccabi Netanya, respectively, in Matchday 24, while Betar faces Maccabi Haifa at Teddy Stadium on Sunday evening.
Jerusalem has been in first place since its 2-0 victory over Hapoel Kfar Saba on the last day of 2006, but has seen its lead dwindle to a mere two points over the last two weeks and now faces the prospect of being ousted.
A win for Hapoel will put the reds at the top of the standings for the first time this season - and Betar would then have a chance to knock it off on Sunday.
"I think we will be competing for the championship until the end of the season," Tel Aviv midfielder Walid Badier said Thursday. "If we can maintain our recent form, we've got a good chance to finish the season with a title.
"The remainder of the season is going to be extremely difficult, starting with the match against Ashdod on Saturday. They are a very good team and played exceptionally well against Betar [in Matchday 23]."
Hapoel has won its last three league matches, keeping a clean sheet in each game and is unbeaten since coach Nir Levin took charge. Ashdod, on the other hand, has won only one of its last nine league matches and has fallen to fifth place after leading the league at the start of the season. Then again, Ashdod was impressive in its 1-1 draw against Betar last Sunday and the team would surely climb up the standings once again should it continue to display such form.
When Maccabi Tel Aviv faces Maccabi Netanya later Saturday, it will hope to rebound from its disappointing 2-2 home draw with last-place Hapoel Petah Tikva last week.
Maccabi hasn't lost a league match in five months, but has only won nine games during its 18-match unbeaten streak. It will have to beat Netanya on Saturday to keep pace with the top clubs.
"Our goal this season is to qualify for European competition," said Tel Aviv coach Eli Cohen, who once again refused to speak of his team's championship prospects. "Netanya is a very strong team and it's always difficult to play them.
"Things didn't go our way last week and the match didn't develop like we wanted it to. We missed four excellent scoring opportunities and when you don't score, you concede."
Netanya brought an eight-match unbeaten run into its game against Hapoel Tel Aviv last week and some of the club's fans were already dreaming of its first championship in 24 years. However, Maccabi was brought down to earth by Hapoel, losing 2-0 at home. It can't afford another loss if it's to push for European qualification.
The three clubs at the bottom of the standings play at home on Saturday.
Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan, 2-1 victors over Haifa last week, hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva, which won for the first time in four matches in Matchday 23 by beating Maccabi Herzliya 4-2.
Herzliya hosts Hapoel Kfar Saba in the Sharon derby, a match between two teams that have combined for only one win in the last five weeks.
Last, and sadly in this case also least, rock-bottom Hapoel Petah Tikva will be looking to build on its 2-2 draw with Maccabi Tel Aviv and claim its third win of the season against Bnei Yehuda.