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Badier and Katan 311.(Photo by: Adi Avishai)
Local Soccer: Expect frantic finish to title race
Even those in strong opposition to the league’s new format cannot argue with the fact that it makes for an exciting end to the season.
A recent poll among Premier League coaches left no doubt on where they stand regarding the revolutionary changes made to the league by the Israel Football Association ahead of this season.

A vast majority of the coaches didn’t hide their disgust with the halving of their point totals and the splitting of the league into three sections, saying it is as ridiculous as it is confusing and unsporting.

However, even those in strong opposition to the league’s new format cannot argue with the fact that it will inject new life and interest into what has so far been one of the dreariest campaigns in recent memory.

Ever since it began the season with 10 straight victories, Maccabi Haifa seemed to be strolling towards a second straight league title.

Just over a month ago, Elisha Levy’s team led the standings by 12 points over Hapoel Tel Aviv, having won an astonishing 21 of 23 matches.

However, two losses and a draw in its past eight matches, combined with seven wins in eight for Tel Aviv, sliced the margin to six points on Saturday night before the gap was halved to a mere three points under the league’s new regulations.

Both championship contenders have relatively comfortable home matches this weekend, with Haifa hosting Ashdod SC and Tel Aviv welcoming Bnei Yehuda.

However, both teams have already got their sights set on the following week when Haifa hosts Hapoel at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in what should be the match of the season and could well prove to be the title decider.

“The championship will be decided in the match against Tel Aviv at Kiryat Eliezer,” said Levy after the 0-0 draw in the derby against Hapoel Haifa on Saturday.

“We lost two valuable points in the derby, but our fate is still in our hands.”

The week after the crunch showdown, Haifa will visit Maccabi Tel Aviv in a tricky match while Hapoel hosts Ashdod.

The yellow-and-blue will be looking to ruin its arch-rival’s title hopes the following week when it plays the Reds, with Haifa facing Betar Jerusalem at home in its penultimate match.

If Haifa is still ahead entering the last week of the season it will surely like its chances of retaining the title, with Levy’s men visiting Bnei Yehuda in their final match of the campaign while Tel Aviv goes to Jerusalem to play Betar.

“We must maintain our focus until the end of the season even though some teams are already going to the beach at this stage,” Hapoel midfielder Gili Vermut said.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas. We must remain 100 percent focused in every match because one mistake can ruin everything.”

The race for the championship is sure to attract most of the attention in the next five weeks, but the battle against relegation and the fight for third position and European qualification are also set to be exciting affairs.

Only four points separate third-placed Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ashdod, which sits all the way in sixth position, with Tel Aviv to host fourth-place Betar this weekend.

At the the other end of the standings, rock-bottom Hapoel Ra’anana is just seven points behind Hapoel Petah Tikva in 11th place, and with two teams facing automatic relegation and another coming up against a National League side in a playoff, there are sure to be no dull moments until the final whistle of the season.
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