hapoel nazareth 88.
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Maccabi Haifa has officially been crowned the 2005/06 Premier League champion and the majority of the clubs have started preparations for next season, but the closing weekend features two battles to be decided only with Saturday's final whistles.
Hapoel Kfar Saba and Hapoel Upper Nazareth are still fighting for a spot in the Premier League next season, and Bnei Yehuda is hoping for at least a draw against Upper Nazareth in order to clinch a berth in the UEFA Cup.
The teams that finish 11th and 12th in the standings are automatically relegated to the National League. Bnei Sakhnin's fate is already sealed at the bottom of the table, but Hapoel Kfar Saba and Hapoel Upper Nazareth, which each have 34 points going into the final weekend, are battling for the all-important 10th spot. Kfar Saba, which is coached by former Betar Jerusalem great Eli Ohana and is enjoying an astounding 11-match unbeaten run, currently occupies 10th place because of its superior goal difference (minus-10 vs Nazareth's minus-21). A Kfar Saba win over Maccabi Netanya effectively ensures itself another Premier League campaign.
Bnei Yehuda succumbed to Ilia Yavorian's late winner in the State Cup final against Hapoel Tel Aviv earlier in the week, but can clinch a spot in next season's UEFA Cup competition with a point from Saturday's match. Bnei Yehuda is in fourth place, three points ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Maccabi Haifa caps its third-straight championship season on Friday afternoon with a visit to Doha Stadium for a face-off against the last-place Bnei Sakhnin, which ends a three-year run in the Premier League.
Haifa has decided to part ways with its dynamic forward Michael Zandberg, who has failed to negotiate a contract extension with the club. The greens are also trying to lure back Yaniv Katan, who left for West Ham United earlier this season and has since failed to capture a regular spot with the English Premier League club.
Hapoel Kfar Saba travels north to take on Reuven Atar and Maccabi Netanya at "The Box," while Hapoel Upper Nazareth hosts Bnei Yehuda.
"Nazareth may prevail because Bnei Yehuda will show up tired after its State Cup game," a focused Ohana commented on his team's chances. "We have to do our job in Netanya in order to survive. No help is needed from other teams and we depend only on ourselves."
Motti Ivanir's Upper Nazareth stunned Betar Jerusalem 2-0 last week at Teddy Stadium to extend the relegation battle to the final weekend of the season, but even another win would not by itself be sufficient to guarantee itself a spot in the Premier League for 2006/07. It has to earn more points this weekend than Kfar Saba.
Ivanir will be without the services of the injured Vladimir Kokol and also right back Ashraf Suliman, who is suspended after collecting five yellow cards. Veteran defender Eliran Elkayam is also lacking match-fitness, but is expected to be included in the game squad.
Although Maccabi Petah Tikva's loss to Maccabi Haifa last Sunday has ended its fourth-place aspirations, the "Luzons" will be hoping to put on a respectable performance against State Cup winner Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Luis Fernandez will guide Betar Jerusalem for the last time on Sunday evening against Nir Levin's Hapoel Petah Tikva, in the Premier League's last match of the season.
Outgoing national coach Avraham Grant is close to signing a two-year deal to coach the yellow-and-black, but the official announcement is expected only next week.