Once again, the decision to expand the top flight to 16 teams was ridiculed on Saturday afternoon, as Maccabi Haifa cruised to a 5-0 victory at Ahi Nazareth, clearly demonstrating the embarrassing gulf in class between the top and bottom ends of the Israel Premier League.
The league leaders scored all five goals, including a Shlomi Arbeitman hat-trick, in a rampant first half, and the visitors could have even approached double figures had they not gone into training ground mode in the second half.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Beersheba managed to put aside its recent off-field crisis, battling back bravely from a goal down to earn a 1-1 draw at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Elsewhere, new coach David Amsalem appears to have injected some much-needed confidence into Betar Jerusalem, claiming his second victory in as many games on Saturday afternoon.
The team from the capital ran out 3-0 winners at Hapoel Acre, courtesy of Geva Barkai’s own goal and late strikes by Aviram Bruchian and Chen Azriel.
Meanwhile, the wheels appear to have come off the Maccabi Netanya train. After last week’s defeat by Betar, Reuven Atar’s men were humiliated 3-0 by Ashdod, thanks to goals by Bulgarian striker Dimitar Makriev, Nir Nachum and Idan Sade.
In the day’s two remaining games, an Eden Ben-Basat hat-trick gave Hapoel Haifa a 3-1 win at home to bottom side Hapoel Ra’anana, while Omer Damari’s brace helped Maccabi Petah Tikva to an enthralling 4-3 victory at Bnei Sakhnin.
Maccabi Haifa 5, Ahi Nazareth 0
Elisha Levy’s post-match assertion that “it’s possible to lose points at every ground” may be true, but, with all due respect to John Gregory’s Nazareth and other sides at the foot of the table, even the admirably humble Haifa coach must admit that the “no easy games” cliché is hardly applicable in this league.
The reigning champion took the lead as early as the ninth minute. After a neat move, Assaf Brown pulled Arbeitman back inside the box, and the league’s top marksman duly dispatched the spot kick for his 20th goal of the season.
Seven minutes later he was celebrating his 21st, bundling the ball in with his chest after ’keeper Joslain Mayebi had fumbled a Peter Masilela cross.
Gregory was fuming as the hosts let in a third goal midway through the first half, with a Yaniv Katan free kick bouncing all the way through and past a motionless Mayebi.
Arbeitman completed his hat-trick 11 minutes before the break, smashing Masilela’s cut-back in off the underside of the bar. And Lior Rafaelov made it five on the stroke of half-time, heading in after a one-two with Vladimir Dvalishvili.
Gregory slammed his side for “exceptionally bad defending,” but criticized the referee for awarding the penalty, after which he said his players had “their backs against the wall.”
“I thought the penalty was a little unlucky on our part, the referee couldn’t wait to give it,” he said. “They then had four chances and scored four.”
Although commending his players for a “much better second half,” one couldn’t help but feel sorry for the former Aston Villa coach when he said he “finds it difficult to accept when players can’t pass the ball from A to B.”Maccabi Tel Aviv 1, Hapoel Beersheba 1
It remains to be seen whether the post-match pro-Alona Barkat rally by some 2,000 traveling fans at Bloomfield Stadium will change the Hapoel Beersheba owner’s mind about leaving, but she could only have been encouraged by the impressive support off the pitch and the courageous display on it.
Yossi Shivhon should have given Maccabi an early lead, but he skewed the ball horribly wide after Ilya Yavruyan had flicked on Yuval Spungin’s cross.
But Shivhon soon made up for his miss, heading Shiran Yeini’s center past a poorly-positioned Tvrtko Kale to put the hosts ahead after 15 minutes.
William Soares should have leveled immediately, but the Brazilian midfielder fluffed a free header from two yards out.
Kale made two wonderful saves to keep Beersheba in the match, first diving full stretch to tip over Lior Jan’s strike, before showing rapid reflexes to deny Shivhon his second.
Maccabi was inches away from going in at half-time two goals to the good, but Emmanuel Mayuka hit the post from Yavruyan’s clever lay-off.
It was an energetic second half for Beersheba, and Ohad Kadousi was guilty of an awful miss soon after the break, poking the ball wide after a classic counterattack culminated in Maor Meilikson crossing low to the striker.
And in the 74th minute, just after Kale had kept out a Shivhon screamer, the visitors got the goal their attacking verve deserved. Kadousi sprayed the ball to Evyatar Iluz just outside the penalty area, and the Beersheba midfielder unleashed an absolute belter which flew into the top corner.
Yuval Avidor then sliced an effort past the post after Ronny Gaffney’s had found the Maccabi substitute in front of goal.
But it was Beersheba that should have won the game at the death.
Meilikson’s pinpoint pass found Barak Badash bearing down on goal, but
the striker snatched at the ball and it rolled agonizingly wide.