The game of soccer can be so cruel.
For the first 57 minutes of Monday night’s Premier League showdown at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium there was only one team on the field.
Table toppers Maccabi Haifa completely dominated second-placed Hapoel Tel Aviv, dictating the pace and threatening Hapoel goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama’s goal time and again.
A mixture of good fortune and wastefulness on the part of the Haifa players allowed Enyeama to keep a clean sheet, but it always seemed only a matter of time until the reigning champion would take the lead and secure a victory.
However, in the 58th minute, Gili Vermut found Maharan Lala all alone in front of goal and the striker scored what could prove to be one of the most important goals in Hapoel history to give Tel Aviv the sweetest 1-0 triumph imaginable.
Minutes after his players finally finished dancing aroud the pitch as they celebrated sending the Reds into first place in the standings with just three games left, Hapoel coach Eli Gutman tried to keep his feet on the ground.
“We won a six-pointer, but we haven’t guaranteed ourselves anything yet,” he said. “I told my players to enjoy the victory, but starting on Wednesday we will begin to prepare for our next match and focus on completing the job.”
Hapoel, which now leads Haifa on goal difference alone, plays its next two matches at home, hosting Ashdod SC and Maccabi Tel Aviv before concluding the season with a trip to the capital to face Betar Jerusalem.
Three victories will most likely be enough for Tel Aviv to win a first league title since 2000 and just a second since 1988, but Haifa will not give up just yet, with the Reds currently only holding a three-goal advantage.
Haifa goes to Maccabi Tel Aviv next week before ending the season with a home match against Betar and a road encounter against Bnei Yehuda.
“We lost an important match but nothing is over yet,” coach Elisha Levy said. “We will now have to lift ourselves and hope for the best.”
As expected, Levy chose to leave the league’s top-scorer Shlomi Arbeitman on the bench, but his disputed tactical decision to play with five players in the midfield paid off almost immediately.
The hosts dominated the possession from the start and in no time were testing Enyeama.
Vladimir Dvalishvili registered the first chance of the night in the seventh minute, but he sent his shot straight at the ‘keeper and Tel Aviv was spared. However, Haifa kept its foot on the gas throughout the first half and four minutes later Gustavo Boccoli reached the best chance of the first period.
Lior Rafaelov’s miss-hit shot found its way to the Brazilian midfielder, only to see Boccoli send a weak header directly into Enyeama’s hands.
Despite the fact that Haifa ‘keeper Nir Davidovich didn’t need to make a single save in the first half, Tel Aviv almost caught the hosts on the break on a couple of occasions.
The visitors were seeing so little of the ball that they had to settle for swift breaks forward and in the 15th minute came very close to stunning the local support.
Vermut found Lala in the box, but the striker ballooned his shot from six meters out.
Lala had another half-chance five minutes later, but Haifa was in complete control and should have really led by at least one goal at the break.
In the 22nd minute, Enyeama looked beaten, but Dvalishvili’s shot, which seemed to be going into the back of the net, hit Maccabi defender Eyal Meshumar and Tel Aviv somehow survived.
Haifa remained on the front foot throughout the remainder of the half and came centimeters from scoring a minute from the interval. Rafaelov twisted and turned on the edge of the box, but his shot went just wide and Tel Aviv was delighted to go back into the dressing room without conceding.
The start of the second half was a direct continuation of the first, with the hosts doing all the attacking and Tel Aviv more than content on holding them at bay.
Ten minutes after the break Boccoli spotted Enyeama off his line, only
for his delicate chip from 30 meters out to be denied by the crossbar.
Seven minutes later, however, Kiryat Eliezer was sent into total shock.
cut through the Haifa defense before finding Lala all alone with a
precise pass and the striker coolly slotted the ball beyond Davidovich
to stun the Greens.
Levy sent in Arbeitman in place of Rafaelov,
but Haifa never really managed to recover from conceding. Enyeama was
largely undisturbed for the remainder of the encounter and Tel Aviv
held on for a victory it will remember for many years to come should it
go on to clinch the league title.