Haifa hones in on title as Hap TA held in derby

Keinan’s late header gives Greens 2-1 victory over Betar; Gregory’s Nazareth on its way down.

Maccabi Tel Aviv Liran Strauber 311 (photo credit: Asif Kliger)
Maccabi Tel Aviv Liran Strauber 311
(photo credit: Asif Kliger)
Kiryat Eliezer seemed like it would lift off the ground in wild celebration on Saturday after Dekel Keinan dramatically put Maccabi Haifa firmly in the driver’s seat for the title in the penultimate game of the season.
The defender’s header four minutes from time saw off Betar Jerusalem 2-1, while Hapoel Tel Aviv lost the initiative at the hands of its bitter rival Maccabi Tel Aviv in a goalless draw at Bloomfield Stadium.
And suddenly, after taking all the plaudits in recent weeks, and deservedly so, Hapoel Tel Aviv appears to have blown it, and unless Maccabi Haifa fails to beat Bnei Yehuda next Saturday, the championship trophy will be staying up north for another season.
In Saturday’s other top-six playoff match at Ashdod, despite a brace byNevo Mizrahi (56, 88) the hosts were beaten 3-2 by Bnei Yehuda, forwhom Shlomi Levy (23), Maharan Radi (70) and Eliran Atar (82) were ontarget.
In the bottom-six playoffs, meanwhile, Ahi Nazareth lostany realistic chance of avoiding relegation from this season’s topflight with a 2-0 defeat at Hapoel Ra’anana.
Dudu Biton doomedJohn Gregory’s side with two first-half goals (22 and 44) from a coupleof exquisite Avi Knafo assists. Due to a goal differential of -41compared with 14th-placed Ramat Gan’s -22, staying up will be beyondGregory’s wildest dreams.
Elsewhere, Hapoel Petah Tikva took a giant stride toward survival, coming from behind to win 2-1 at Hapoel Haifa.
Eden Ben Basat gave Haifa a 10th-minute lead, but the visitors hit backin the second-half through Osman Bashiru (47) and Ibrahim Bassit (80).
The win means Eli Mahpud’s men have avoided automatic relegation, butcould be dragged into a two-legged playoff with the National League’sthird-placed side should they lose next week against Hapoel Ra’ananaand other results go against them.
In Saturday’s final relegation-playoff match, Hapoel Ramat Gan againstHapoel Acre finished goalless. Acre will be happier with the pointthough, since a far superior goal difference than Ra’anana means thatYaron Hochenboim’s boys have all but escaped the automatic drop.
Maccabi Haifa 2, Betar Jerusalem 1
The Haifa players and fans were celebrating as though they had alreadyclinched the championship on Saturday night, and although the words“counting chickens” and “hatch” may spring to mind, few would arguewith match-winner Keinan that “if we don’t win the league now, we’rethe biggest suckers in the history of Israeli soccer.”
Elisha Levy was slightly more circumspect.
“There’s still one game left, but if there’s any justice, we’ll win the league,” said the Haifa coach.
The hosts took the lead after 11 minutes with a goal of sublimequality. Yaniv Katan drilled a pass into Vladimir Dvalishvili, and theGeorgian dummied to Shlomi Arbeitman before collecting his fellowstriker’s pass and chipping the ball over the onrushing Ariel Harush.
But the visitors leveled nine minutes later. Shimon Gershon headed on acorner and former Maccabi Haifa captain Arik Benado poked the ball overthe line.
Dvalishvili should then have put the hosts back in front, but he failedto react quickly enough when the ball dropped to him a yard out.
A stalwart Betar backline kept Haifa at bay for most of the secondperiod, but Levy’s men kept plugging away and were rewarded for theirpersistency in the dying minutes. Lior Rafaelov collected PeterMasilela’s layoff on the left and sent in a cross to the far post,where Keinan’s diving header nestled into the corner for what surelywill prove to be the most important goal of his career.
Hapoel Tel Aviv 0, Maccabi Tel Aviv 0
The dejected Hapoel Tel Aviv players trudged off the Bloomfield pitchon Saturday night, knowing that their rivals had all but ruined theirtitle chances.
And while Hapoel was short of its best on the night, praise must go outto Maccabi for stifling Eli Gutman’s men and looking dangerous on thebreak.
Emmanuel Mayuka held off Douglas da Silva well in one of those breaksearly on, but his shot lacked power and Hapoel ’keeper Vincent Enyeamaeasily gathered.
At the other end, Gili Vermut shot over after a bad clearance by Igor Tomasic, and the midfield playmaker then hit the outside of the post after he was put through by a brilliant Daniel de Ridder flick.
Itai Shechter missed a glorious chance at the start of the second-half,heading wide from Dedi Ben-Dayan’s cross after getting between the twoMaccabi center backs.
Hapoel went closest scoring with 20 minutes remaining, Da Silvarattling the crossbar after Vermut’s pass had found the Brazilian allalone in the box courtesy of Tomasic’s slip.
Liran Strauber then palmed away Shechter’s effort, and da Silva’sheader from the resulting corner bounced agonizingly over the bar.
Maccabi held firm though, while sheer frustration got the better ofHapoel’s Victor Merey in injury-time when the substitute was sent offfor lashing out at Ronny Gaffney.