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.

Badier and Katan 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Badier and Katan 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
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 titlehopes the following week when it plays the Reds, with Haifa facingBetar Jerusalem at home in its penultimate match.
If Haifa isstill ahead entering the last week of the season it will surely likeits chances of retaining the title, with Levy’s men visiting BneiYehuda in their final match of the campaign while Tel Aviv goes toJerusalem to play Betar.
“We must maintain our focus until theend of the season even though some teams are already going to the beachat this stage,” Hapoel midfielder Gili Vermut said.
“We can’ttake our foot off the gas. We must remain 100 percent focused in everymatch because one mistake can ruin everything.”
The race forthe championship is sure to attract most of the attention in the nextfive weeks, but the battle against relegation and the fight for thirdposition and European qualification are also set to be excitingaffairs.
Only four points separate third-placed Maccabi TelAviv and Ashdod, which sits all the way in sixth position, with TelAviv to host fourth-place Betar this weekend.
At the the otherend of the standings, rock-bottom Hapoel Ra’anana is just seven pointsbehind Hapoel Petah Tikva in 11th place, and with two teams facingautomatic relegation and another coming up against a National Leagueside in a playoff, there are sure to be no dull moments until the finalwhistle of the season.