Local Soccer: Mac TA, Hapoel TA breathing down Betar's neck

The chasing pack will look to make up even more ground on Saturday and increase the pressure on Betar, which plays Ashdod SC on Sunday night.

nir levin 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
nir levin 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Betar Jerusalem's faltering form in recent weeks has injected some much-needed life into the Premier League championship race, with Hapoel Tel Aviv and city rival Maccabi trailing the league leader by just four points ahead of Matchday 23. The chasing pack will look to make up even more ground on Saturday and increase the pressure on Betar, which plays Ashdod SC on Sunday night. Hapoel Tel Aviv visits Maccabi Netanya a mere three weeks after the clubs' previous league meeting. The match in Netanya ended in a 1-1 draw, but both teams have recorded 1-0 wins in their two league games since and are well-placed for an assault on the top of the standings. Hapoel coach Nir Levin and Netanya coach Reuven Atar only took charge of their respective clubs in the last couple of months and both have been instant hits with their teams' fans. Levin has won two and drawn one match since joining, with Atar winning five and drawing three of his eight games to date. "We're going for the championship," Hapoel midfielder Salim Toama said Thursday. "The league and the State Cup are all we've got left after losing in Glasgow [in a UEFA Cup match]. "It's always difficult to play in Netanya; it's one of our least favorite stadiums. Nevertheless, we need to leave with all three points." Maccabi Tel Aviv is sandwiched between Hapoel and Netanya in third place in the standings and will have a superb chance to cut Betar's lead to a single point when it hosts last-place Hapoel Petah Tikva. Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated Petah Tikva 1-0 last week in the final matchday of the second round and will be looking for its third victory in four matches on Saturday. Maccabi is unbeaten in its last 17 matches and faces a club that has lost three in a row and is six points away from safety. Maccabi Haifa, which has only won once in its last six matches, hosts Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan in its last game before a UEFA Cup tie against Espanyol on Thursday. Haifa coach Roni Levy conceded last week that his team is nothing more than a mediocre league side, but even with the title seemingly out of reach, Maccabi still has plenty to play for. The team needs to finish in the top three to qualify for European play via the league and will need to start winning soon if it's to make up lost ground on the top clubs. "We have two long and arduous weeks ahead of us," Levy told his players after training on Thursday. "Hakoah on Saturday, Espanyol on Thursday and three days later, we play Betar at Teddy Stadium. I urge you to put everything aside and concentrate solely on the team. "We've played Hakoah four times this year, twice in the league and twice in the Toto Cup, and haven't beaten them once. It hurts me to see the team in sixth position in the league. We must make an extra effort to return to our natural place among the leagues leaders." Also on Saturday, Hapoel Kfar Saba hosts Bnei Yehuda in what should be an open game between two teams that are no longer feeling the pressure of relegation. Maccabi Petah Tikva plays Maccabi Herzliya on Saturday in a match between two clubs that have combined for only one point in the last three weeks of action.