By SHARON SOLOMON
Reigning champion Maccabi Haifa is looking unstoppable deep into the first round of the Premier league and a historic three-peat is on the horizon for the greens, thanks to a perfect record with nine straight wins.
While Haifa is comfortably leading the standings, the battle for second place is heating up. Betar Jerusalem, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv are all in pursuit of Bnei Yehuda, which lost to Maccabi Haifa last week.
Hapoel Kfar Saba hosts Motti Ivanir'sUpper Nazareth in the Friday afternoon fixture, which opens Matchday 10. Another loss would push Kfar Saba even deeper in the relegation zone and shorten its way back to the National League.
Veteran winger Avi Tikva is injured and will not be available for the hosts.
To make matters worse, Liron Zarko and Valentin Tudorika are also doubtful for the fixture.
A rejuvenated Betar Jerusalem will be looking to keep its winning streak alive, when it hosts Hapoel Petah Tikva. The yellow-and-black have now won three straight games and are aiming to capture second place, which means a spot in European competition.
Newly appointed general manager Luis Fernandez was present at the team's practice on Thursday and is getting familiar with the professional staff.
"The Jerusalem fans have a wonderful stadium, which is of European standard," Fernandez told reports after the session. "Clearly new training facilities are needed, in order to improve the standard of the club."
French football legend Marcel Desailly, who will serve as an overseas advisor for Betar, is also expected to be in Jerusalem to attend Saturday's game.
UEFA Cup contender Maccabi Petah Tikva hosts second place Bnei Yehuda in a must win game. The "Luzons" have not tasted victory in their last six matches and are approaching the relegation zone with only nine points from nine games.
Petah Tikva right back Ismail Amar is close to being suspended by the Israel Football Association, after the TV cameras caught him spitting on a ball boy in last week's derby loss to Hapoel Petah Tikva. Amar was sent off later in the game, following a separate incident.
Bnei Sakhnin will be looking to escape the bottom spot in the standings when it takes on Maccabi Netanya at the Doha Stadium. The team received another NIS 500,000 donation from Betar Jerusalem chairman Arkadi Gaydamak earlier this week.
Sakhnin has made an impressive comeback by collecting five points from its last three games after opening the season with six straight losses.
Netanya coach Reuven Atar will have veteran defender Ofer Talker at his disposal after the player has recovered from a nagging injury that kept him out of action for about a month.
Hapoel Tel Aviv host Ashdod SC with both teams desperate to stay close to the league frontrunners. Tel Aviv has started planning the post-Kashtan era and many changes are expected in coming months. The reds have already released Mate Lakich and Avi Knafo.
Ilya Yevoryan, who was signed this month from Hapoel Petah Tikva, is expected to make his debut for the home side.
Matchday 10 wraps up Sunday evening at Kiryat Eliezer when Maccabi Haifa hosts archrival Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Knesset orders free World Cup broadcasts
After widespread criticism of the plan to charge NIS 800 for a 2006 World Cup broadcast package, the Knesset Finance Committee convened an emergency meeting and ordered the Cable and Satellite Council to present a plan within two weeks that will enable Israelis to watch the matches for free.