(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Betar Jerusalem will have an ideal opportunity to increase its lead over its title rivals Saturday night when it hosts Maccabi Netanya at Teddy Stadium in Matchday 16 of the Premier League.
Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv play on Sunday when they face off at Bloomfield Stadium. Three points for Jerusalem will intensify the pressure on its two main championship contenders.
Betar will be without midfielder Fabrice Fernandes after the Frenchman was released from the club Thursday because of his frequent disciplinary troubles. Fernandes failed to show up for an appointment with the Betar disciplinary committee Thursday morning. He was fined $20,000 and cut from the squad by the team's management.
"Anybody who witnessed the training ground bust-up between Fernandes and coach Yossi Mizrahi two weeks ago knew that there could be no way back for the player," Betar captain Itzik Korenfein said Thursday.
Jerusalem lost 3-1 to Netanya in Matchday 5 in its first defeat of the season, and wants to avoid a similar result Saturday.
"We collapsed against Netanya earlier in the season and we are determined to show such a result cannot be repeated," Korenfein said. "We have come a long way since that match. But I still think we will not have an easy time on Saturday. Netanya will be highly motivated and we will need to work hard for the win."
Reuven Atar will guide the visitors for the second time since rejoining the team last week, and will be eager to build on his side's 1-0 win over Hapoel Kfar Saba last Saturday.
Fourth-place Maccabi Petah Tikva faces fifth-place Maccabi Tel Aviv on Saturday at Bloomfield Stadium. Tel Aviv hasn't lost in its last 10 matches, with its last defeat coming against Petah Tikva in mid-October. Despite their unbeaten run, the yellow-and-blue are coming into Saturday's match in disappointing form after drawing their previous four league games.
SC Ashdod will be trying to make up lost ground when they face Hapoel Kfar Saba. Ashdod has won five and drawn two of its last seven matches, and will need to rebound from losing two precious points last week in a home draw against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Kfar Saba has been having a tough time recently, failing to win in its last five matches. Despite playing at home, it will be facing a formidable opponent.
The battle against relegation heats up Saturday when Hapoel Petah Tikva hosts Bnei Yehuda and Maccabi Herzliya plays Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan.
Last-place Hapoel Petah Tikva is still looking for its second win of the season, and is in an especially bad mood after losing its local derby last Saturday. Bnei Yehuda, on the other hand, got an unexpected victory in Matchday 15 against Maccabi Haifa, and will have a great chance to put some breathing space between itself and the relegation zone with a win.
Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan has failed to score in five of its seven away matches, and will need to vastly improve to have any chance in Herzliya on Saturday. The hosts are just two points ahead of Hakoach and a win against their fellow strugglers could prove to be vital for their Premier League survival.
On Sunday, Maccabi Haifa hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv, with both sides desperate for all three points to close in on Betar.
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Maccabi Petah Tikva (live at 5:15 p.m. Saturday on Sport1 [Channel 54]); Betar Jerusalem vs Maccabi Netanya (live at 7:30 p.m. on Sport1); Maccabi Haifa vs Hapoel Tel Aviv (live at 8:50 p.m. Sunday on Channel 10).