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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Ironi Kiryat Shmona's two-year flirtation with top-flight soccer ended in disappointment on Saturday when it was relegated to the National League following a 2-1 home defeat to Maccabi Petah Tikva in its last game of the season.
Coach Ran Ben-Shimon, who in April returned to the club he led to a superb third place finish last season, was unable to repeat the heroics of a year ago.
Ironi had only to win against Maccabi, which had nothing to play for. But the team in blue threw it all away, failing to score until it was way too late.
Meanwhile, Hakoach Ramat Gan, which started the day in bottom spot, defeated Hapoel Petah Tikva 1-0 at Winter Stadium to set up a two-legged relegation playoff against Ahi Nazareth, the team which came sixth in this year's National League standings.
Ramat Gan and Nazareth will play for the final spot in next year's newly-expanded Premier League which will include 16 teams, four more than this year.
Minutes after the game finished, Hakoach coach Dudu Dahan was already looking toward this week's playoff. "We will do our maximum. It won't be easy and we know Ahi Nazareth will be a tough team to beat," he said.
Also Saturday, Bnei Yehuda may have missed out on a place in Europe after falling 31 at Bnei Sakhnin, although Almog Cohen's late goal for Maccabi Netanya clinched fourth place for the Diamonds in any case.
However, despite winning the State Cup and ending the season in third place, Betar Jerusalem will in all likelihood not play in Europe next season after failing to meet the UEFA club licensing committee's requirements, and therefore Bnei Yehuda and Netanya will probably take both part in continental competition regardless of Saturday's results.
In the one game not played at 7.15 p.m., Maccabi Tel Aviv finished its season on a high by winning its third straight game, beating Ashdod SC 1-0 at Bloomfield Stadium.
It has been a fine few weeks for coach Avi Nimni, who was brought in a few games into the season to replace Ben-Shimon.
But the drama of the day was shared between Kiryat Shmona and Ramat Gan.
For the first 45 minutes there were few scoring chances in either match, and two 0-0 draws would have sent Dahan's Hakoach side back down to the second tier after only a season back in the Premier League.
The change came in Ramat Gan with hardly a minute of the second half played.
With little warning, Eitan Tibi scored a stunner, turning the Petah Tikva defense inside out and firing home from inside the area.
Now Kiryat Shmona had to score at least one goal, but it was not to be for the team from the North.
The final nails in Kiryat Shmona's coffin came with 10 minutes to go. First Omer Damari put Maccabi Petah Tikva ahead and then, a minute later, Omer Buksenboim found himself totally onside and unobstructed by any defenders so he slotted home simply.
Kiryat Shmona got a consolation goal through Tomer Swissa in the 90th, but it was too little too late.
The club's owner Izzy Shiratzky was philosophical in defeat.
"We didn't win so we can't stay in the league. This is soccer, this is sport. There's nothing we can do, so we will have to continue looking forward.
"Next year we will do everything we can to get promoted," he said, before confirming that Ben-Shimon will continue as coach next season.
Sakhnin, which had been part of the relegation battle until the last few weeks, finished the season in ninth position following the victory over Bnei Yehuda.
The visiting side went ahead through Eliran Atar a couple of minutes into the game when he easily beat Meir Cohen in Sakhnin goal when given a one-on-one opportunity.
However, 20 minutes later Sakhnin was level, when Oz Reali scored an own-goal. Khaled Khalaila put the Arab side ahead in the 53rd minute and Ibrahim Bassit confirmed the win in the 61st.
Despite the loss it has been a super season for Guy Luzon's team in Orange and for Luzon himself, who had been ridiculed after failing at Hapoel Tel Aviv last season, only to bring redemption at the unlikely setting of the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv and lead Bnei Yehuda to a fifth-place finish.
In the second game at Bloomfield, Eran Zahavi scored the opener for Hapoel Tel Aviv, but Shelav Menashe equalized with 17 minutes to go and Cohen scored a storming goal a minute from time to give Lothar Matthaus a winning send-off in his last game in charge of Netanya.
The final game of the season will be played at Maccabi Haifa's Kiryat Eliezer stadium when the champion hosts Betar Jerusalem in a game which has no real significance apart from allowing the home fans to celebrate their team's championship.