Maccabi Haifa sent a resounding message to its title challengers Sunday night by defeating Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-2 at Kiryat Eliezer. Haifa may have begun the season poorly, but the three-time reigning champion is still hungry for a fourth championship and has no intention on relinquishing its title without a fight. Three first-half goals in 22 minutes effectively clinched the win for the hosts and closed the gap on first-place Betar Jerusalem to only five points. Haifa's victory was marred in second-half stoppage time when two of its players, Xavier Dirceo and Haim Magrashvilli, exchanged punches after their team conceded its second goal. Dirceo received a red card after the final whistle. Hapoel is tied on 27 points with Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Petah Tikva. Veteran defender Alon Harazi opened the scoring when he connected with Alain Masudi's corner and steered the ball into the net for his first goal of the season. Two minutes later, Maccabi should have doubled its lead. But Shlomi Arbaitman missed his left-footed shot from 10 meters out and squandered an excellent chance. The hosts almost paid dearly for their miss when Baruch Dego's shot in the 18th minute was only partially cleared by Haifa 'keeper Nir Davidovitch. Ibizito Ogabuna missed the net from five meters out. Hapoel's poor marking cost the team once again in the 29th minute when Yaniv Katan was all alone in the box and had no trouble heading in Harazi's cross. Seven minutes later, Katan scored his second goal and his team's third, complementary of some horrible defending by the visitors. Salim Toama's clearance fell perfectly for Katan, who hit a right-footed volley straight into the top right corner of Shavit Elimelech's goal. In the 59th minute, Elyaniv Barda dribbled past two Maccabi players and crossed the ball for Ogabuna, who easily tapped the ball in. The visitors scored a consolation goal in stoppage time when Walid Badier thumped in a free kick from 20 meters out.