(photo credit: AP)
Hapoel Tel Aviv finally conquered the Premier League summit as Nir Levin's squad overcame a defiant Ashdod SC 2-1 at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday.
The reds were not very impressive against Alon Hazan's side, but enjoyed a great game by goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech, who compiled a series of acrobatic saves. Ashdod was on the verge of registering a well-deserved draw, but fell prey to a dramatic and controversial injury-time goal by Salim Toama.
"I don't want to comment on the winning goal before watching the TV replays," Levin said. "But I must say that the linesman looked very sure of the goal and my feeling is that it was the right decision. We didn't play well today, but sometimes good luck is all you need."
Betar Jerusalem will have a chance to re-conquer first place in the standings on Sunday as it hosts defending champion Maccabi Haifa at Teddy Stadium in the Matchday 24 finale. Betar is coming off an unimpressive 1-1 draw with Ashdod.
Coach Yossi Mizrahi is planning extensive alterations to his starting lineup. Amit Ben-Shushan and Jose Ramalho will pay the price for the team's weak form and will be replaced by Gal Alberman and Kleber Schwenck. Veteran Arik Benado is expected to fill in for the suspended Shimon Gershon.
At Bloomfield Stadium, Ashdod produced a tactically sound first half and employed its trademark men-behind-ball game plan and denied Tel Aviv's strikers easy chances. Ibazito Ogabuna had an opportunity to put the hosts ahead in the 43rd minute, but his ball sailed above the crossbar.
Around 5,000 Tel Aviv fans finally saw their team taking the lead in the 63rd minute after a well-crafted counterattack. Ogabuna did his job and easily converted a brilliant pass from left winger Toama.
It took Ashdod nine minutes to get back on level terms. Hazan's men canceled Hapoel's lead with a lethal raid which was created by Masai Dego, brother of Tel Aviv's Baruch Dego. Idan Shriki did the damage with a trademark close-range finish.
The game took another dramatic twist in injury time.
Tel Aviv won a free kick from the right flank, with Toama stepping up to perform the duty. The flamboyant winger's curling shot was misjudged by Sammy Adjei, who enabled the ball to bounce into the goal. Ashdod's claims of a foul on Adjei were dismissed by referee Asaf Keinan.
Maccabi Tel Aviv 2, Maccabi Netanya 1
The opening stages of the match were played with a defensive frame of mind, as the teams concentrated on marking each other's attackers. But the final minutes of the first half was more entertaining, as two quick goals were scored.
Okocha gave the Netanya the lead in the 42nd minute after he was set up brilliantly by former Tel Aviv playmaker Ophir Haim. But Tel Aviv wiped out the deficit just three minutes later, thanks to an accurate Sasa Ilic shot from outside the box.
Maccabi Tel Aviv's Miljan Mrdakovic found himself in front of the goal in the 77th minute, and skillfully chipped home the winner over Liran Strauber, who was caught out of position.
"A very important win," noted Tel Aviv coach Eli Cohen. "It was a very difficult match against a very talented team.
"But I'm glad we scored two goals and managed to contain their attackers. We have to keep improving as this league is very difficult and competitive."
Hapoel Kfar Saba 3, Maccabi Herzliya 1
Kfar Saba needed just two minutes to get on the scoresheet. Veteran full back Ofer Talker lofted a free kick into the penalty area, and midfielder Liran Zarko jumped high and headed in the ball.
Herzliya scored the equalizer in the 15th minute when Yannick Kamanan found himself unmarked in the penalty area and provided a clinical finish from seven meters.
Kfar Saba kept pushing ahead and took the lead again just six minutes later. Guillermo Israilevich ran down the left flank and crossed the ball into the box, where Avi Knafo made a slick run, spinned past his marker and jabbed the ball into the goal.
Knafo also added an assist in the 40th minute. The defender's cross was intercepted by Samuel Yeboah, who made the most of the opportunity. Herzliya failed to alter the scoreline in the second half.