Sakhnin, Hap PT, Ashkelon fighting for Premier League survival entering season’s
final weekend; Bnei Yehuda, Netanya vying for 4th place, Europa League berth.
By ALLON SINAI
The Premier League title race may have already been decided, but the battle against relegation will come down to the final seconds of the 2010/11 season on Saturday.After clinching its seventh championship in 11 years with a 2-0 victory over Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Monday, Maccabi Haifa has already turned its focus to next Wednesday’s State Cup final, where it will look to overcome last year’s champion Hapoel Tel Aviv and secure a first league and cup double in 20 years.While the only significant matter remaining to be determined in the championship playoffs is whether Bnei Yehuda or Maccabi Netanya will finish in fourth place and book a Europa League berth for next season, the fight for top-flight survival is still wide open.Bnei Sakhnin, currently in 13th place with 20 points and a -20 goal difference, is in the enviable position of having its fate in its own hands, but Hapoel Petah Tikva (19, -19) and Hapoel Ashkelon (19, -30), who faceoff on Saturday, both also still have everything to play for entering the final weekend of the season.Sakhnin hosts Betar Jerusalem on Saturday knowing a victory will secure it a sixth straight season of Premier League soccer.Since Shlomi Dora became Sakhnin’s fourth coach of the season at the start of April, the team has lost just once in six matches, climbing out of the relegation zone with a 2-1 win over Hapoel Ramat Gan last week.Around 6,000 fans are expected at the Doha Stadium for what under normal circumstances is a very-heated affair between two of the most bitter rivals in Israeli soccer.“We have two options,” Dora told his players ahead of Saturday’s crunch match.“Either we get the job done and on Sunday we can go to the beach, or we fail and on Sunday we come back for a training session. You will decide which it will be. If you show determination you will take the points.”A Sakhnin loss will see it fall one place to 14th position, which would lead to a two-legged relegation playoff tie against the team that finishes third in the National League.One point will be enough to leave Sakhnin in 13th should Petah Tikva and Ashkelon draw on Saturday, but Dora does not want to depend on other results and has no intention of settling for anything less than the three points against Betar.While Sakhnin has the advantage of facing a team which has nothing to play for but pride, Petah Tikva and Ashkelon will battle each other in a direct showdown for survival.Anything but a home win for Ashkelon will see the team relegated to the second division after just one season.A 90th minute goal by Shay Biruk secured Ashkelon a 1-0 victory against Betar at Teddy Stadium last week, giving the team its first winning streak of the season.Ashkelon Coach Eli Mahpud, who spent his entire 24-year playing career at Petah Tikva and began this season as the team’s coach before being sacked in October, knows there will be no turning back for his side should it fail to win on Saturday.“I have experience in these situations and if you listen to me you will be fine,” Mahpud told his players. “We need to win the match, but we can’t afford to lose our head in defense. We have shown improvement in our last two matches and if we continue this we will be able to smile at the end of the encounter.”Petah Tikva has picked up just one point in two matches since Gili Landau took charge, but as long as it avoids a defeat on Saturday it will at least have a playoff tie to look forward to.“We are facing a battle for life or death,” Landau said. “It is no secret that Ashkelon has improved in recent weeks, but I hope our improvement comes on Saturday. We believe we can win and I’m also hoping for a positive result for us in Sakhnin which will already guarantee our survival on Saturday.”Also Saturday, Ashdod SC, which is still mathematically not safe, hosts rockbottom Hapoel Ramat Gan, knowing even a narrow defeat will likely secure it another season in the Premier League.In the championship playoffs, Bnei Yehuda welcomes Maccabi Haifa to Bloomfield Stadium, needing one point to officially book a Europa League place for next season.Maccabi Netanya, which trails Bnei Yehuda by three points and five goals, visits Maccabi Tel Aviv, while Hapoel Tel Aviv travels up north to face Ironi Kiryat Shmona.In the National League, which draws to a close on Friday, Hapoel Kfar Saba will hope to join Ironi Ramat Hasharon in automatic promotion to the topflight with a win at Hapoel Ra’anana.A Kfar Saba slip-up will open the door for Hapoel Rishon Lezion, which hosts Ramat Hasharon, and Maccabi Herzliya, which welcomes Ness Ziona.Rishon is two points behind Kfar Saba, but has a superior goal difference to Tomer Kashtan’s team, which led the standings for most of the season, while Herzliya is a point further back.“The team with the most wins in the league deserves to be promoted and I'm certain that justice will be done,” said Kashtan, whose side is desperate to avoid missing out on a place in the Premier League in the last weekend of the season for a second straight year.
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