Much at stake with relegation, European bids undecided

TENSIONS WILL be running as high as ever as Hapoel Beersheba, Maccabi Petah Tikva and Hapoel Haifa enter their final match of the season.

HAPOEL HAIFA’S Ali Khatib 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
HAPOEL HAIFA’S Ali Khatib 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
One way or another, the battle against relegation from the Premier League will be decided on Saturday night, with Maccabi Petah Tikva, Hapoel Beersheba or Hapoel Haifa to face demotion to the National League when the final whistle to the season is sounded.
Haifa, on 41 points, only requires a home draw against rock-bottom Hapoel Petah Tikva to secure its safety thanks to its superior goal difference, Beersheba, one point further back, must defeat Betar Jerusalem at Vasermil Stadium to guarantee itself another season of top-flight soccer.
A Haifa loss or a Beersheba failure to win will open the door for in-form Maccabi Petah Tikva.
Petah Tikva seemed to be all but relegated three weeks ago, but it has claimed three straight victories to close within a single point of survival.
Another win on Saturday against Hapoel Ramat Hasharon at the Moshava Stadium could complete the great escape, and despite needing other results to go its way, Petah Tikva players remain optimistic.
“No one gave us a chance, but coach Sinai motivated us and we will continue to fight as long as we have a chance,” said defender Tal Ma’abi. “Clearly, we will have to beat Ramat Hasharon, but our fate isn’t just in our hands. However, I believe that if we win things will work out in our favor.”
Petah Tikva could even maintain its Premier League status with a draw should Beersheba lose to Betar.
“You will be the heroes of Beersheba if you stay in the league,” Beersheba coach Guy Levy told his players on Thursday, with the southerners only picking up a single point from their last two matches.
Pressure is also mounting at Hapoel Haifa, which finds itself tangled in the fight for survival after winning just one of its past five games.
Coach Tal Banin stormed out of a team meeting on Thursday after owner Yoav Katz began to address the squad against the coach’s wishes.
“We could have secured our survival long ago, but unfortunately we missed our chance,” Banin told his players. “However, our fate is still in our hands.”
Also Saturday, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv will aim to lock up a Europa League berth before their showdown in the State Cup final on Tuesday.
Haifa hosts Hapoel at Kiryat Eliezer Stadium, with the winner guaranteed to finish the season in second or third and qualify for Europe.
A draw will also be enough for Tel Aviv to finish in third.
Maccabi Netanya will climb to fourth with a home win against Bnei Sakhnin and will be crossing its fingers that the cup will be won by a team that finishes ahead of it as that will hand it a continental berth.
Bnei Yehuda, which already qualified for European competition for the fourth consecutive year with its 4-3 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv on Wednesday, will aim to clinch second place with a victory at Ashdod SC.
Also Saturday, Kiryat Shmona welcomes Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Rishon Lezion faces Hapoel Acre.
On Friday, the National League season comes to an end, with three teams tied on 34 points at the top of the standings and only one to gain promotion to the top flight.
Hapoel Ramat Gan leads the pack with a goal differential of plus 27, while Maccabi Herzliya is on plus 17 and Bnei Lod on plus 15.
Further complicating matters is the new regulation implemented this season regarding ties.
The rule dictates that, should two teams finish tied on points for first position, a winner-takes-all playoff match will be held to decide who will play in the Premier League next season.
Ramat Gan’s vastly superior goal difference means that a win at Hapoel Ra’anana on Friday will, at the very least, guarantee it a playoff berth.
Herzliya, which hosts Hapoel Jerusalem, and Lod, which visits Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, will both be aiming to win by as big a margin as possible as goal difference seems set to determine the outcome of the photo-finish ending to the National League.