Mac TA has opportunity to officially dash Hapoel’s hopes
Hapoel’s title defense has derailed in recent weeks, following a 2-0 defeat at current league-leader Maccabi Haifa and a 2-2 home draw with Maccabi Netanya last Saturday.
By ALLON SINAI
Recent disappointments and frustrations will be set aside on Saturday when Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv renew their rivalry in the always-riveting derby at Bloomfield Stadium.Hapoel’s title defense has derailed in recent weeks, following a 2-0 defeat at current league-leader Maccabi Haifa and a 2-2 home draw with Maccabi Netanya last Saturday.Haifa holds a four-point lead over the Reds and will clinch a seventh Premier League championship in 11 years with one victory in its remaining two matches even should Hapoel triumph in its final two games of the campaign.Haifa will be hoping to wrap up the title when it hosts Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Monday, but it could even clinch the championship without playing on Saturday should the yellow-and-blue beat Hapoel.Maccabi has little to play for after effectively clinching a place in the Europa League next season, but it will be desperate to officially end its arch-rival’s hopes of a repeat by beating Hapoel for the first time in nine derby matches on Saturday, with the yellow-and-blue losing five and drawing three of its league encounters with the Reds since its last win in March 2008.“The derby will be especially interesting, because we want to secure third place and Hapoel still wants to win the championship,” said Maccabi striker Barak Itzhaki, who made his comeback last week after over eight months out due to a knee injury.“I don’t think we can congratulate Haifa just yet because we saw what happened last season.”AdvertisementDespite its recent struggles in the league, Hapoel will be in an upbeat mood on Saturday after advancing to its fifth State Cup final in six years on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Kiryat Shmona.Star midfielder Gili Vermut is a doubt to even make the substitutes bench due to a groin injury, placing even more pressure on Eran Zahavi, who once more came to his team rescue in the cup semis, scoring the opener in the 80th minute with a spectacular bicycle kick.“I’m happy my goal helped the team advance,” Zahavi said. “We didn’t play well, but in the cup the only thing that matters is that you advance. We will try to improve our play in the final and in the derby, which is no less important.”With the top two to face off in the cup final on May 25, fourth place in the table has suddenly become especially valuable as it will grant its eventual occupant a Europa League berth.Maccabi Netanya, which lost 3-2 to Haifa in the cup on Wednesday, is currently in fourth place on 27 points, but it only leads Bnei Yehuda on goal difference ahead of the showdown between the two teams on Saturday.Kiryat Shmona is just a further two points back, but faces the daunting prospect of visiting Haifa at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium on Monday.In the relegation playoffs, Hapoel Ashkelon (16 points), Bnei Sakhnin (17) and Hapoel Petah Tikva (18) continue their fight for another season of top-flight soccer on Saturday.Ashkelon visits Betar Jerusalem, with Bnei Sakhnin traveling to already-relegated Hapoel Ramat Gan and Petah Tikva hosting Ashdod SC.The bottom two face automatic relegation to the National League, with the 14th-placed finisher to play a playoff tie against a second-division opponent.
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