Barak Itzhaki and Betar Jerusalem appear to be brimming with confidence at what is a crucial stage of the campaign.
The striker’s second hat-trick in four league games gave his team a 3-1 win at Hapoel Ra’anana on Saturday night. And with playoffs just a month away, the Jerusalem side will certainly fancy its chances of grabbing a place in next season’s UEFA Europa League.
Elsewhere, Hapoel Tel Aviv stumbled past a spirited Hapoel Haifa 2-1, while there was a dramatic end to the game at The Box, where Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Netanya drew 2-2.
Also Saturday, Bnei Yehuda returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory at home to Maccabi Petah Tikva, while John Gregory’s Ahi Nazareth stunned Ashdod 1-0.
Meanwhile, Acre got a crucial 1-0 win against Hapoel Ramat Gan, and Hapoel Petah Tikva beat Hapoel Beersheba by the same score-line.Betar Jerusalem 3, Hapoel Ra’anana 1
It was a tale of two contrasting halves at Ra’anana, where a half-time berating by new coach Shimon Hadari and his assistant David Amsalem had an immediate impact on the Betar players.
The home time had the best of the chances in the opening minutes of the first half. Dudi Biton managed to escape the attentions of Betar’s Eitan Tibi, but the Ra’anana striker skewed his effort well wide of the far post.
But Betar failed to heed the warning of that early scare, falling behind in the ninth minute courtesy of a defensive howler by Eliran Danin. The Betar left-back made a hash of an easy clearance, passing the ball straight to Roi Levi, who crossed for Biton to nudge the ball home.
The league’s bottom side was giving Jerusalem a torrid time, and goalkeeper Ariel Harush had to be at his best to tip over Omri Atia’s screamer.
But whatever was said in the Betar dressing room seemed to do the trick, as the visitors were level eight minutes after the break.
Idan Tal collected short corner before crossing for Shimon Gershon. Although the center back’s header was well saved by Smadja, Itzhaki was there to slam in his 13th goal of the season.
Ra’anana soon came whiskers away from regaining the lead when Biton thundered a header against the bar from Roi Levy’s cross.
An identical passage of play at the other end then resulted in Betar going in front, demonstrating what the influence of Itzhaki – a striker who, silky skills aside, time and time again pops up in the right place at the right time.
Tal whipped in a cross, Tamuz rattled the cross bar, and whereas Ra’anana’s chance bounced to safety, Itzhaki was there for Betar to knock in the rebound.
The Betar hit-man completed his hat-trick in injury time, bursting through from half-way before driving the ball into the corner.Hapoel Tel Aviv 2, Hapoel Haifa 1
Hapoel Tel Aviv may have just about “done what we needed to do,” as coach Eli Gutman put it, but the Reds are going to have raise their game considerably when it comes to the top-six playoffs if they are to have any chance whatsoever of beating Maccabi Haifa to the title.
After Dani Bondar went close with a stinging half volley, the visitors took the lead midway through the first-half.
Itai Shechter beat Savity Lipenia on the left and touched the ball back to Gili Vermut, whose shot deflected off American Bryan Gerzicich and looped into the corner.
The hosts then wasted a glorious chance to equalize. The burly Eran Levy held off two challenges before slotting in Idan Ben-Basat, but the Haifa striker badly miscued, and his shot sailed wide.
And the home side was made to rue that miss minutes later when Eran Zehavi curled in a spectacular free kick via the underside of the bar for his seventh goal of the season.
Haifa had a real go in the second half, and Ben-Basat missed a golden opportunity on the hour, heading down and over the bar from just a yard out after Levy’s had sent in a sublime cross.
Vincent Enyeama saved with his legs to deny Hai Ben-Lulu, and Amir Abu
Nil was then put clean through by Levy but inexplicably tried to square
the ball to Ben Basat, allowing Tel Aviv’s Nigerian stopper to gather.
Tel Aviv’s Dedi Ben Dayan received his marching orders eight minutes
for time, picking up his second yellow card for a dangerous foul on Ben
Ben-Basat finally found the net in the last minute of stoppage time,
getting on the end of yet another Levy pinpoint pass and slotting
through Enyeama’s legs.
But, as Haifa coach Shlomi Dora put it, it was “too little too late”
for the hosts, who perhaps deserved more after a gutsy second half