Much still to be decided as playoffs get underway

While Ironi Kiryat Shmona can already clinch an historic championship, the battle against relegation and the fight for European qualification looks set to go down to the wire.

March 23, 2012 06:11
3 minute read.
Shimon Abu Hazeira from Ironi Kiryat Shmona

Shimon Abu Hazeira from Ironi Kiryat Shmona 370. (photo credit: Adi Avishai)

The Premier League enters its final stretch this weekend as the championship and relegation playoffs get underway.

After 30 matches and two rounds of play, the league has been split into two sections of eight teams each, with every side to play seven more games against the other teams in its half of the standings.

While Ironi Kiryat Shmona can already clinch an historic championship on Monday with still six matches to spare, the battle against relegation and the fight for European qualification looks set to go down to the wire.

Only four points separate Betar Jerusalem in 11th place and Maccabi Petah Tikva in 14th position, which will lead to demotion to the National League at the end of the season.

Betar can open a significant seven-point gap from the relegation zone with a win over Petah Tikva on Sunday.

However, before the two face off in Ramat Gan due to an Israel Football Association disciplinary court punishment leveled at Jerusalem, they will be crossing their fingers for a draw in Saturday’s showdown between Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba, which are tied on 32 points in 12th and 13th places, respectively.

A stoppage-time goal by Maccabi Haifa’s Danijel Cesarec cost Hapoel Haifa a prestigious derby triumph as well as a fourth win in five matches last Saturday, while Beersheba beat Hapoel Rishon Lezion last week for its third win in four games, all by a 2-1 score line.

“These are the moments which a footballer lives for,” Haifa coach Tal Banin said. “The players understand the team’s situation and they are very focused, which gives me a lot of confidence.

“We hope that in 3-4 matches the battle against relegation will be behind us.”

Rishon’s hopes of survival suffered a crushing blow with last week’s defeat in Beersheba, and with safety five points away, Eyal Lachman’s men know a road win at Hapoel Ramat Hasharon on Saturday is a must.

Also in the relegation playoffs, Hapoel Acre hosts Hapoel Petah Tikva.

Elsewhere Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv will look to avenge its recent derby defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv in front of empty stands at Bloomfield Stadium.

Maccabi ended a four-year drought without a league derby victory with a 1-0 win two-and-a-half weeks ago, a triumph marred by violent scenes courtesy of Hapoel fans.

As a result, Hapoel was deducted three points and sentenced to host three matches in front of empty stands, the second of which will be served on Saturday.

Hapoel coach Nitzan Shirazi has done an admirable job since the derby debacle, guiding the team to a 4-1 road win at Maccabi Haifa and a 2-2 home draw with Kiryat Shmona before leading the Reds to the State Cup quarterfinals with a 3-1 extra-time victory over Bnei Lod on Wednesday.

A Hapoel failure to win on Saturday combined with a Kiryat Shmona victory against Bnei Yehuda on Monday will officially see the northerners clinch their first-ever league title.

Only six points separate second-placed Hapoel and Bnei Yehuda in eighth, meaning every match in the championship playoffs carries numerous implications in the fight for a Europa League berth next season to be awarded to the teams finishing in second and third place, and possibly also fourth, should one of the top three win the cup.

Netanya, which advanced to the cup quarterfinals with a 2-1 win at Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday, visits fourth-placed Ashdod SC, with which it is tied on 47 points, while Bnei Sakhnin, which is in third place, also on 47 points, hosts Maccabi Haifa.

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