By ALLON SINAI
After hanging on the coattails of Maccabi Haifa for much of the season, Hapoel Tel Aviv can leapfrog the defending champion into first position in the Premier League standings and take a massive step towards securing a first championship since 2000 with a victory at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Monday night.Tel Aviv has been in magnificent form for most of the campaign, especially in recent weeks. Eli Gutman’s men have scored a league-high 80 goals, losing just once throughout the season, and have closed the gap on Haifa in the past couple of months by winning 10 of their last 11 matches.However, Haifa will be just as confident of taking all three points on Monday and closing in on a second straight league title and a seventh championship in 10 years.Elisha Levy’s team not only enters the showdown nursing a three-point margin after winning a remarkable 26 of 31 matches so far, but it will also be boosted by the fact that Hapoel has beaten the Greens at Kiryat Eliezer just twice in the past 22 years.While Haifa fans have been spoiled by their dominant team in the past decade, Hapoel supporters can hardly remember what winning the championship feels like. Tel Aviv’s only league triumph since 1988 came in the 1999/2000 season, when it won the league and cup double under the guidance of Dror Kashtan, something Gutman will be looking to emulate this season with his side also to play in the State Cup semifinals next week.First things first, however, especially with Hapoel having no real option of taking the title without claiming the win in Haifa.While Maccabi will not be too disappointed with a draw on Monday, knowing a share of the spoils would still leave it with a three-point cushion with three matches remaining, Hapoel can not afford to return down South without a victory.AdvertisementGutman is set to name an offensive minded lineup, with attacking midfielder Daniel de Ridder, who scored the winner against Bnei Yehuda last week, to replace suspended defensive midfielder Zurab Menteshashvili.Star ’keeper Vincent Enyeama will be in goal as usual, with Douglas da Silva and Walid Badier, who scored the winner in Hapoel’s one and only victory at Kiryat Eliezer in the past 11 years in March 2006, to start at the center of the defense.Regular left-back Dedi Ben-Dayan will start after shaking off an injury and after much deliberation Gutman looks set to use Danny Bondarv on the right of the defense rather than Omri Canada.Avihai Yadin, Gili Vermut and Eran Zehavi will join de Ridder in the midfield, with Maharan Lala likely to team up with the side’s top scorer, Itai Shechter, up front.Haifa coach Levy will likely start with just one striker, with the league’s top-marksman, Shlomi Arbeitman, expected to be dropped to the bench.Arbeitman has scored 27 league goals so far and is on course to break Nisim Elmalich’s record of 30 goals in a season set in the 1954/55 campaign. However, Levy seems adamant on only using Arbeitman as a substitute, placing him in the second team in training throughout the past week.Georgian Vladimir Dvalishvili is expected to be Haifa’s lone striker, with Yaniv Katan to provide support from the midfield. Levy seems set to pack the midfield with Eyal Golasa, Lior Rafaelov, Gustavo Boccoli and John Culma in an attempt to slow down Hapoel’s swift surges forward.Nir Davidovitch will take his usual place between the posts, with DekelKeinan to start at the heart of the defense alongside Shay Maimon afterrecovering from an ankle injury.Eyal Meshumar and Peter Masilela will begin the match on the right andleft sides of the defense, respectively, and will also play key rolesin supporting their team’s search for goals.On Sunday, Eran Levy scored a stoppage time penalty to give Hapoel Haifa a 1-0 victory over Hapoel Ramat Gan.The victory takes Haifa four points clear of the relegation zone and leaves Ramat Gan just two point above the bottom two.
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