All set for Saturday’s super showdown

Maccabi Haifa faces a must-win as Hapoel Tel Aviv comes storming in.

Hapoel Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Hapoel Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
The battle for the Premier League title will reach a fever pitch on Saturday night when Maccabi Haifa hosts Hapoel Tel Aviv at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in a crunch showdown between the two most dominant forces in Israeli soccer in recent years.
Last season, Hapoel beat Haifa 1-0 on the road at the same stage of the campaign to leapfrog to the top of the standings. Tel Aviv would relinquish first place in the subsequent weeks before eventually edging the Greens for the championship on goal difference thanks to Eran Zahavi’s stoppage time winner against Betar Jerusalem in the final match of the season.
Haifa is the team facing a must-win situation this season, trailing Hapoel by one point, just two weeks after it held a seven-point gap over the reigning champion.
The halving of point totals ahead of the championship playoffs, coupled with a draw and a defeat in two consecutive league matches against Maccabi Netanya, saw Haifa surrender first position to Hapoel on Monday thanks to Toto Tamuz’s 86th minute winner in the 2-1 victory over Bnei Yehuda.
Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv seemed to be the one stuttering towards the finish line, winning only two of five matches.
However, it is Haifa which has looked out of sorts in its last two encounters against Netanya, while Hapoel eked out wins over Hapoel Ramat Gan and Bnei Yehuda to move into the driving seat ahead of Saturday’s showdown and the final four matches of the campaign.
“We showed character by beating Bnei Yehuda, but I think that the match at Kiryat Eliezer will be a completely different story,” said Hapoel’s midfield maestro Gili Vermut, who has struggled with a groin injury in recent weeks, but is still expected to start on Saturday.
“Despite the recent results, I don’t feel that momentum is on our side. We are only ahead by a single point and the title race is wide open and the momentum could change with every match.
“Playing at Kiryat Eliezer is always difficult and I think both teams have an equal chance of winning. Haifa has home-court advantage and will pressure us from the start. I don’t think that the winner in this match will guarantee itself the championship, but if we take all three points that will be a significant step in the right direction.”
Hapoel will be without influential midfielder Avihai Yadin on Saturday, after he was suspended for one match by the Israel Football Association disciplinary court on Wednesday for provoking Betar Jerusalem fans following Tel Aviv’s 1-0 victory in the State Cup quarterfinals.
However, Tel Aviv coach Eli Gutman will welcome back defenders Dedi Ben- Dayan and Danny Bondarv from injury, and apart from Yadin and Itai Shechter – who is out injured until the end of the season – he’ll have a full squad to pick from.
Haifa coach Elisha Levy has no injuries or suspensions to worry about and could name captain Yaniv Katan in the starting lineup for the first time since the Greens were thrashed 4-1 by Tel Aviv when the teams last met at Bloomfield Stadium two months ago.
Levy’s men have lost three straight league encounters to Hapoel, also falling 2-0 to the Reds at Kiryat Eliezer in November, but defender Arik Benado is still optimistic his team can win on Saturday.
“Before Hapoel’s recent run against us we had a run of our own and we will see which team is better on Saturday,” said the 37-year-old Benado, who knows all about big matches. “We need to know how to be mentally strong for money-time matches like this. I believe we can do it.
“I can’t explain our slipups in the last two matches, but we have shown this season that we can win difficult games.
We had a tough time recovering from what happened last season and the only real remedy for what occurred is to take the championship this time, and to do so we need to win on Saturday.”
In the two other championship playoff matches on Saturday, Maccabi Netanya hosts Ironi Kiryat Shmona and Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Bnei Yehuda.
Betar Jerusalem can all but secure itself another season of top-flight soccer on Saturday with a home win over Hapoel Petah Tikva in the relegation playoffs, while Bnei Sakhnin welcomes Ashdod SC and Hapoel Ramat Gan faces Hapoel Ashkelon.
In the mid-table playoffs, Hapoel Haifa hosts Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Acre travels south to play Hapoel Beersheba.