Premier League teams gear up for crucial third round

Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv are continuing their battle for second place, which will guarantee European qualification.

The Premier League enters its third and final round this weekend, with most of the teams facing key games that can make or break their seasons. Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv are continuing their battle for second place, which will guarantee European qualification and a chance to showcase their top talents, as well as a financial windfall from gate receipts and television rights. Maccabi Tel Aviv is in action Friday afternoon against Motti Iwanir's Upper Nazareth at Bloomfield Stadium. The yellow-and-blue will hope to bounce back from last week's 3-1 defeat at the hands of Maccabi Petah Tikva. Tel Aviv coach Ton Caanen, who is still without the injured Avi Nimni and Giovanni Rosso, is expected to start Brazilian striker Jose Duarte and Ofir Haim upfront. Veteran Eyal Berkovic has bounced back from a nagging injury and will be in Caanen's starting 11. Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts 11th place Bnei Sakhnin and will be looking to avenge its loss at the Doha Stadium in the second round, which was Sakhnin's last league win. Despite his side's lowly league position, Sakhnin captain Abas Suan was optimistic about his team's chances to survive in the top flight. "We improved our game in the second round," he told reporters this week. "I believe that if we collect 16 points from the 33 available, we can make it." Nitzan Shirazi's Bnei Yehuda hosts Hapoel Petah Tikva at Bloomfield, with a theoretical chance to climb to third place. Petah Tikva coach Nir Levin will make a number of changes to his lineup as the team has not tasted victory for three straight games. Guy Shamir is expected to be on the bench after failing to impress recently. Elnatan Salami will fortify the team's attack. Ashdod SC visits Maccabi Netanya at "The Box," hoping to start the game on time and avoid the incidents that surrounded the host's State Cup tie against Maccabi Petah Tikva earlier this week. Netanya co-owner Asher Allon is expected to report to the IFA disciplinary committee to try and explain the lack of a fire engine at the game, as specified in the Premier League safety regulations. Maccabi Haifa starts the last round of the domestic season with an easy home game against last-place Hapoel Kfar Saba, which is not expected to put up much of a fight. Kfar Saba has won only three games this season. Haifa has agreed to terms with Netanya's Alain Masudi, who is expected to move to the greens at the end of the season. The Congolese forward's contract is for three years and a reported $200,000 per season. In other developments with the reigning champions, Brazilian Gustavo Boccoli and Argentinean Roberto Colautti applied for Israeli citizenship at the Interior Ministry earlier this week. In the final game of the weekend, Betar Jerusalem will host Maccabi Petah Tikva at Teddy Stadium on Sunday evening in an attempt to impress at home and take over second place. Veteran left back David Amsalem has agreed on a contract extension that will keep him at the club through the 2006-07‚ campaign, which will be his 10th season with the yellow-and-black. Betar to host Malmillian in State Cup Thursday's draw for the State Cup eighth-finals produced some mouth-watering prospects. In a fascinating premier league matchup, Ashdod SC hosts Dror Kashtan's Hapoel Tel Aviv, while Hapoel Beersheba takes on Maccabi Haifa. Maccabi Petah Tikva faces a tricky game against Maccabi Herzliya. Former Betar Jerusalem great Uri Malmillian will return to the capital as coach of Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan. Betar is likely to repeat its strong performance against Kiryat Gat in the last round and have no problems defeating Ramat Gan. Malmillian is expected to receive a warm and emotional welcome at Teddy. Malmillian led Betar to its first championship in 1987, as well as three State Cup titles.