By ALLON SINAI
It was not that long ago that the meetings between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Betar Jerusalem were the highlight of the Premier League season.
However, in a stark reminder of how the mighty have fallen, Maccabi's match against Betar at Bloomfield Stadium on Saturday was not even deemed by Channel 1 to be the biggest encounter of the weekend.
Channel 1 chose to broadcast the Haifa derby on Monday night rather than Maccabi vs Betar, which in the past was the obvious choice to be shown live as the main match of the week.
A brief look at the standings would have you think Maccabi and Betar are not doing that badly. Avi Nimni's men are currently in third position with 25 points, with Jerusalem in fifth place a further point back.
However, both teams have rarely impressed this season and are well adrift of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, who look set to battle for the championship until the end of the season.
With the first round of matches to end this weekend, Maccabi and Betar are effectively already playing for third position, something which was once unthinkable.
Times have changed, however, at Kiryat Shalom and Beit VeGan and what was once regarded as a failure is now considered a success.
At least both Maccabi and Betar enter Saturday's match in a confident mood.
Tel Aviv thrashed Ashdod SC 5-0 on Wednesday to advance to the Toto Cup semifinals, with Jerusalem also progressing to the last four of Israel's second cup competition in the mid-week while also winning its last three league matches, albeit against three newly-promoted sides.
"This is an encounter between two big clubs who have been playing well lately," said Betar captain Aviram Bruchian on Thursday. "We know that if we play our best we will be difficult to stop. Our only goal is to leave Bloomfield with three points. I think Maccabi is the slight favorite because it is playing at home, but we are Betar Jerusalem and we aim to win every match."
Nimni is hoping his players can build on Wednesday's Toto Cup performance.
"We are expecting a tough match against Betar," he said. "We need to continue our recent improvement and hopefully we will do well."
Meanwhile, Hapoel Tel Aviv will be looking to put Maccabi Haifa under a little pressure ahead of the derby.
Hapoel, which has won its last seven matches by a combined goal difference of 22-2, trails Haifa by nine points with a game in hand and will be expecting to pick up all three points when it visits Hapoel Ramat Gan, which has lost all four of its contests to date against teams currently placed in the top-5.
In another intriguing match-up, Bnei Sakhnin hosts Ahi Nazareth, with both of the league's Arab sides in desperate need of points in their battles against relegation.
"Everyone knows the importance of this match for the team and the fans," Sakhnin midfielder Abas Suan said.
Sakhnin has won just once in its last 11 matches, with Nazareth snapping a seven-game losing streak last week with a 3-3 draw against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Also Saturday, the sorry Hapoel Petah Tikva hosts Ashdod, Hapoel Beersheba travels up north to face Hapoel Acre and Maccabi Petah Tikva visits Hapoel Ra'anana. Bnei Yehuda welcomes Maccabi Netanya to Bloomfield on Sunday, with Hapoel Haifa hosting Maccabi Haifa in the derby on Monday.
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