Preview: Premier League splits for home stretch

Beersheba, Mac TA lead championship playoff race, tight fight to avoid joining Netanya in relegation

Hapoel Beersheba’s Eliyaniv Barda (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Hapoel Beersheba’s Eliyaniv Barda
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
With their mouthwatering Premier League showdown just over a week away, Hapoel Beersheba and Maccabi Tel Aviv will have one last opportunity on Saturday evening to jockey for the best possible position ahead of their heavily hyped clash.
Beersheba hosts Maccabi at Turner Stadium on Sunday, March 20, but before the title rivals meet in what could possibly be a decisive contest, they will be aiming to gather momentum with victories in their championship playoff openers on Saturday.
Starting from this weekend, the league is split into two sections. The top six will face each other twice more to determine the champion and final positions, while the bottom eight sides will meet once more to decide the battle against relegation.
The relegation playoffs will begin next weekend.
Beersheba failed to win for just the third time in 21 league matches last week, drawing 2-2 with Bnei Sakhnin at Turner. The draw extended the team’s unbeaten run, with its last defeat coming more than five months ago. However, it snapped a club record eight-match winning streak and meant Maccabi moved within just three points of the summit.
Maccabi has won four straight games, equaling its biggest victory of the season with a 5-0 drubbing of Hapoel Kfar Saba last Saturday. The yellow-and-blue can climb to the top of the standings on goal difference for at least two hours with a victory over Sakhnin at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday, with Beersheba to open its encounter with Hapoel Ra’anana around 30 minutes after the final whistle in Tel Aviv.
“We are trying to achieve something really big which hasn’t been done in 40 years,” said Beersheba coach Barak Bachar, with the club last winning the championship in 1976. “We are approaching the final stretch to the season and we know we are good enough to do this.”
Maccabi coach Peter Bosz is hoping his team can build on last weekend’s performance.
“I always say that I like to look at ourselves and I was happy with the result but even happier with the way we played, the position game and how we pressed,” said the Dutchman.
“The way we played will give us confidence for the future. We train the position game and how we want to press. If I was here for two weeks and they were able to put the system in place quickly, then my impact wouldn’t have been so great. It takes time and you have a philosophy as to how you want to play, but it’s a continuous process. We have been doing it better and better but we are still not there yet.”
After doing Maccabi a favor last week, Sakhnin will aim to come to Beersheba’s aid on Saturday. Sakhnin is still in the State Cup where it will face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals next month.
A surprise cup triumph will see it qualify for the Europa League next season, but a fourth-place finish in the league will also be good enough to secure continental play in 2016/17 should either Maccabi or Beersheba go on to win the cup.
“We are two points from the place which will likely lead to Europe at the end of the season,” said Sakhnin coach Yossi Abuksis, whose team is unbeaten in its past seven matches. “We don’t want to sit back in the playoffs and feel that we have already accomplished our goal this season.”
Maccabi Haifa is currently in fourth place with 38 points, with both Sakhnin and Ra’anana two points back.
On Monday, third place Beitar Jerusalem welcomes Maccabi Haifa.