Maccabi Haifa Arbeitman 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger )
A brace by South African striker Thembinkosi Fanteni helped Maccabi Haifa to a 2-1 home victory against bottom club Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Saturday afternoon and ensured that things will remain tight in the title race even if Hapoel Tel Aviv wins Sunday's derby.
Also Saturday, Betar Jerusalem came from behind to beat Ashdod and stay in the championship hunt, while a late goal by Panamanian Alberto Zapata gave Lothar Matthaus's Maccabi Netanya a 1-0 home win against Hapoel Petah Tikva to keep its European dream alive.
Elsewhere, a Barak Badash goal grabbed a vital point for Hakoach against Sakhnin, while Bnei Yehuda was held to a 1-1 draw at home to Maccabi Petah Tikva.
Ironi coach Ran Ben-Shimon branded referee Meir Levy a "coward" for failing to award his team a last-minute penalty at Kiryat Eliezer after Haifa's Gustavo Boccoli appeared to have handled the ball in the box. However, in truth, the visitors would have been dead and buried by then had Haifa not missed a hatful of chances.
Although Ironi should have taken an early lead when Yuval Avidor blazed over Yero Bello's cross, Haifa soon took control and its dominance paid off with the opening goal after 19 minutes. John Culma headed down Yaniv Katan's corner and Fanteni smashed the ball in from close range.
The South African was running the visitors ragged, flashing a header just wide from Eyal Meshumar's near-post cross, before volleying over a cut-back from fellow countryman Peter Masilela.
The hosts doubled their lead just past the hour when substitutes Eyal Golasa and Lior Rafaelov combined to set up Fanteni, who slotted the ball under Ironi 'keeper Danny Amos.
Alon Harazi came on as a late substitute for a record 520th Israeli Premier League appearance, and the veteran Haifa defender had to endure a slightly nervy last 10 minutes after Bello bundled Avidor's pass into the net.
Haifa should have scored again either side of Bello's goal, but Golasa first fluffed a one-on-one and he was then foiled by a last-ditch challenge by Luis Gutierrez, who moments later, did equally well to deny Fanteni his hat-trick.
Following the controversial refereeing decision, a frustrated Bello was sent off at the death for hitting Leonard Krupnik around the back of the head.
Haifa coach Elisha Levy said he was pleased with the "important win" although he felt his team had "enough opportunities" to put the game to bed.
Betar Jerusalem 2, Ashdod SC 1
Betar Jerusalem may be six points off the top, but after Saturday's home win against Ashdod, coach Reuven Atar vowed to the league leaders that his team would keep "breathing down their necks."
It was a disastrous start by Atar's men though, who fell behind on eleven minutes when Bulgarian Dimitar Makriev finished coolly after being played in by David Revivo. Moshe Ohayon then curled a brilliant shot just past the Betar post, while at the other end, Toto Tamuz rattled the crossbar and Michael Zandberg went close with a header.
Betar began the second-half in terrific fashion and was already in front just six minutes after the break.
Barak Itzhaki headed in a cross by David Amsalem, before Idan Tal took advantage of some indecision in the Ashdod defense and cracked a shot past 'keeper Dragan Stojkic.
Stojkic then saved well from Zandberg and Idan Vered, but Ashdod was inches away from clinching a last-minute leveler when Shai Maimon crashed a header against the bar. Maccabi Netanya 1, Hapoel Petah Tikva 0 Matthaus's men may be out of the title race, but after Saturday's win against Hapoel Petah Tikva, they are still very much in contention for a spot in next season's new revamped UEFA Cup - the UEFA Europa League.
Maccabi Netanya 1, Hapoel Petah Tikva 0
The visitors had a golden opportunity to take the lead at the end of the first-half when Shimon Abuhatzera was brought down by Liran Strauber after outpacing the Netanya keeper. Ori Uzan stepped up, but Strauber saved the spot-kick, diving down to his right.
The winner came seven minutes from time when Shalev Menashe found Tal Ma'abi, whose cross from the left was fired into the corner by Zapata.
Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan 1, Bnei Sakhnin 1
The visitors took an early second-half lead when Ahmed Kasoum knocked home Khaled Khalaila's freekick, but just past the hour, Badash latched on to Eitan Tibi's long ball and found the bottom corner for the crucial equalizer.
Bnei Yehuda 1, Maccabi Petah Tikva 1
The visitors took a 32nd-minute lead when Tal Ben Haim's shot was poked in by Rubil Sarsour from close range, but his effort was canceled out midway through the second half by Eliran Atar, who blasted the ball into the top corner after skillfully skipping past two challenges.