Two-horse title race set to tighten further

Hap TA at Ramat Gan, Mac Haifa visits Netanya before point-halving; Betar in K8.

Soccer photo 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Soccer photo 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The idiosyncrasies of the Premier League’s format are set to make for a very interesting weekend of soccer.
With everyone to have their point totals halved prior to the playoffs getting under way next week, each of the league’s clubs will have plenty to play for on Saturday and Sunday.
If the playoffs were to begin as things currently stand, Maccabi Haifa would hold a four-point margin over Hapoel Tel Aviv at the top of the league standings.
However, should the reigning champion defeat rock-bottom Hapoel Ramat Gan at Winter Stadium as expected on Saturday, it is guaranteed to enter the playoffs no more than three points behind Haifa, even if the Greens win at Maccabi Netanya on Sunday.
The fact that point totals will be rounded up after being halved is set to play into Tel Aviv’s hands, with Haifa to suffer from the system for a second straight season.
Haifa also took a three-point gap into last year’s championship playoffs, but ended up losing the title in the final minutes of the campaign.
However, unlike last season, Haifa seems to be improving as the season progresses, while Tel Aviv is playing perhaps its worst soccer of the campaign.
While Haifa has won five straight matches, Hapoel has taken all three points only twice in its last five contests and discovered earlier this week that it will have to close the season without injured star-striker Itai Shechter.
“It hurts me that I will not be able to help my team this season,” said Shechter, who has been out with a shoulder injury since mid-January.
“I could have helped Hapoel in the run-in, but I trust my friends and believe they will be able to get the job done. It will be very difficult as Haifa is experiencing an excellent period while we are struggling, but I’m hoping for a similar scenario to last year.”
One of the most sought-after positions in the table will be 10th place.
Four teams are battling for 10th, which leads to the mid-table playoffs and ensures its eventual occupant another season of top-flight soccer.
Betar Jerusalem currently holds the much-coveted position and has its fate in its own hands when it visits Ironi Kiryat Shmona on Saturday.
Betar claimed its third straight victory at Teddy Stadium last week, but it hasn’t won on the road in almost three months.
All that currently separates Betar and 11th-placed Hapoel Beersheba is a single goal, meaning that should Beersheba beat Maccabi Tel Aviv at Bloomfield Stadium by more than one goal on Saturday it could in theory leapfrog Jerusalem even if Roni Levy’s side wins in Kiryat Shmona.
However, Beersheba has been in dire straits in recent weeks, losing six of its past eight matches.
The yellow-and-blue has also struggled recently, falling in three straight games before drawing with Maccabi Petah Tikva last week.
With just a two-point lead over Kiryat Shmona in the fight for third place, Tel Aviv will be just as desperate as Beersheba for a win on Saturday.
The two other teams battling for 10th position with Betar and Beersheba are Ashdod SC, which visits Ironi Ashkelon on Saturday, and Hapoel Petah Tikva, which travels to Hapoel Haifa in its first match since parting ways with coach Yuval Naim on Wednesday.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Acre hosts Bnei Sakhnin, with Maccabi Petah Tikva visiting Bnei Yehuda in a direct battle for a top-six finish and a place in the championship playoffs on Sunday.