maccabi haifa 311.
(photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Never has such a remarkable campaign gone so overlooked.
With all the buzz surrounding Hapoel Tel Aviv’s play in recent months, Maccabi Haifa’s historic season has almost passed by unnoticed.
Haifa can claim its second straight Premier League championship and seventh in the last 10 years with a victory over Bnei Yehuda at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday, capping a truly extraordinary season.
The Greens lead Hapoel Tel Aviv by two points entering the final match of the campaign after leapfrogging the Reds into first place in the standings following a dramatic couple of hours last Saturday.
While Hapoel only managed a 0-0 draw against Maccabi in the Tel Aviv derby, an 86th minute goal by Dekel Keinan gave Haifa a 2-1 victory over Betar Jerusalem and took it back to the top of the table, a position it has made its own from the start of the season.
Haifa won its first 10 matches to open a significant lead at the top, but the league’s new format, combined with Maccabi’s struggles and Tel Aviv’s winning streak, blew the title race wide open.
Tel Aviv went top after beating the Greens 1-0 at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, but remained in first position for less than two weeks and now needs to beat Betar Jerusalem at Teddy Stadium and for Bnei Yehuda to do it a massive favor if it’s to win a first league title since 2000.
However, with Bnei Yehuda having nothing to play for, the fate of the championship race is well and truly in Haifa’s hands and it would be a huge surprise should Elisha Levy’s team fail win at Bloomfield and strengthen its stranglehold on Israeli soccer.
“We can’t afford to be complacent,” Levy said. “We took a very significant step towards the championship last week, but we are facing a tough match and I hope we don’t disappoint our fans. If there is justice in soccer we will win the title.”
A victory over Bnei Yehuda will be Haifa’s 29th win in 35 matches, breaking the record set by the 1993/94 Haifa side, which won 28 of 39 encounters on its way to the championship.
Even though the match will be played at Bloomfield, Haifa will have some 12,000 supporters backing it on Saturday, with Bnei Yehuda’s management allocating the visitors most of the stadium as the team from Hatikva neighborhood has already booked its place in Europe. Despite the improbability of Haifa dropping points, Hapoel’s players are trying to remain optimistic.
“We will go for the win at Teddy and then hope for the best,” said captain Walid Badier, who is looking to lift a second trophy in four days after hoisting the State Cup on Tuesday night following Hapoel’s 3-1 victory over Bnei Yehuda.
“We’ve experienced an amazing season and our team deserves to win the championship.”
Also Saturday, Maccabi Tel Aviv hosts Ashdod SC.
Meanwhile, Hapoel Ra’anana or Hapoel Ramat Gan will join Ahi Nazareth in the National League on Saturday.
Ramat Gan leads Ra’anana by two points and will avoid automatic
relegation if it wins at Nazareth, which lost all hope of maintaining
its Premier League status last week.
If Ramat Gan fails to pick up all three points, Ra’anana can climb out
of the relegation zone with a road victory over Hapoel Petah Tikva.
Petah Tikva and Hapoel Acre, which hosts Hapoel Haifa, will also be
desperate for a win to avoid a 14th place finish, which will result in
a two-legged playoff for another season in the top-flight against the
team that will finish third in the National League.