(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Two goals in six second-half minutes gave Maccabi Haifa a 3-2 comeback victory over Ironi Kiryat Shmona at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Monday night, increasing its margin at the top of the Premier League standings to seven points.
Haifa found itself 2-1 down to Ran Ben-Shimon’s team after Barak Badash scored for Kiryat Shmona six minutes into the second half.
However, the Greens played some of their best soccer of the season in the subsequent 30 minutes and opened a significant margin over Hapoel Tel Aviv thanks to goals from Lior Rafaelov (59) and Tomer Hemed (64).
“We played well, especially in the second half,” said Haifa coach Elisha Levy, whose team has won five straight matches. “We are entering the playoffs with a nice margin and we are determined to make up for what happened last season.”
Haifa visits Maccabi Netanya next Sunday in its final match ahead of the start of the championship playoffs. A victory will ensure it enters the final five-match stretch of the season at least three points clear of Hapoel after the halving of point totals, with the reigning- champion facing Hapoel Ramat Gan on Saturday.
“This was a very tough match against a very strong team,” Rafaelov said. “We found ourselves in a deficit, but showed character by coming back and knew how to win the match. It is a little annoying that a seven-point lead will be cut into a three-point margin, but that is what has been decided and we will need to maintain our composure until the end of the season.”
The hosts went in search of the opener right from the kickoff, with Seidu Yahaya registering Haifa’s first shot on target after just 22 seconds, being denied by goalkeeper Guy Haimov.
Haifa controlled the possession for much of the first half, but it had to wait until the 38th minute before it was rewarded for its dominance.
Taleb Tawatha burst down the left flank in what is quickly becoming a characteristic move before squaring the ball to perfection for Shlomi Azulai to give Haifa the lead.
However, Kiryat Shmona needed just six minutes to equalize.
Adi Elisha’s cross caught Haifa’s defense napping and Wiyam Amashe left ’keeper Nir Davidovich no chance with his header.
Six minutes into the second half, Kiryat Eliezer was stunned into silence.
Amashe wriggled through Haifa’s anemic defense, and despite seeing his
shot come off the upright, the visitors went in front thanks to Badash,
who was the first to the rebound.
Five minutes later, Haifa fans were holding their heads in disbelief
after Azulai somehow missed a one-on-one opportunity, but they would
have to wait just three more minuets before seeing their team equalize.
Rafaelov was given far too much space and time on the edge of the box and he blasted in his eighth league goal of the season.
Haifa needed only five more minutes to score the winner.
Rafaelov’s splendid pass sliced through the Kiryat Shmona defense and
Hemed coolly slotted in his eighth league goal in the past nine matches
to give Haifa a lead it wouldn’t relinquish on the way to its eighth
victory in its last nine games.
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