Yellow-and-blue looks to regroup after cup ouster

Maccabi Tel Aviv seeks to build on its eight-point lead at the top when it visits Bnei Sakhnin.

MACCABI TEL AVIV striker Eliran Atar 150 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
MACCABI TEL AVIV striker Eliran Atar 150
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
With its hopes of winning the State Cup for the first time since 2005 going up in flames on Wednesday, Maccabi Tel Aviv will turn its full focus to claiming its first Premier League title in 10 years on Saturday, looking to build on its eight-point lead at the top when it visits Bnei Sakhnin.
After surging ahead in the title race with eight wins in its past 10 matches, including its last five, Maccabi fans were already fantasizing about celebrating a first league and cup double since the 1995/96 campaign. However, Beitar Jerusalem ended that dream on Wednesday, recording a shocking 2-0 win over the yellow-and-blue at Bloomfield Stadium in the last 16 of the cup, extending Maccabi’s cup curse.
Since last lifting the cup in 2005, Maccabi has gone eight consecutive seasons without even making it past the quarterfinals.
However, rather than mulling over its cup futility, Tel Aviv will instead concentrate on completing its mission in the league, starting with Saturday’s tricky tie at Sakhnin.
“We are in a good position in the league and all our energies will be now channeled in that direction. We have no other choice,” said Maccabi midfielder Gal Alberman.
“We didn’t play so well against Beitar and when that happens in the cup you are knocked out.”
Alberman was confident that Maccabi will bounce back from the unexpected setback.
“We have already proven that we aren’t that vulnerable and fragile this season,” he said. “We have got some very difficult and important matches until the end of the season and we want to maintain our lead and accomplish our goal.”
Tel Aviv can open an 11-point gap at the top with a win at Sakhnin, with second-placed Maccabi Haifa not hosting Hapoel Haifa in the derby until Monday night.
Sakhnin enters the match just two points off the relegation zone having won just one of its past eight contests.
Sakhnin, which advanced to the cup quarterfinals with a 3-2 win over Bnei Lod on Wednesday, hasn’t even found the back of the net in its last three home games, losing all three encounters by a combined goal difference of 0-8.
Elsewhere Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv will look to continue its recent resurgence when it hosts the struggling Ashdod SC.
Hapoel has won both its matches since Freddy David replaced Yossi Abuksis as coach, although it was far from convincing in last weekend’s 2-1 league victory over Hapoel Beersheba and in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Hapoel Kfar Saba in the cup, requiring help from the referees in both games.
After a promising start to the season, Ashdod has won just one of its past 13 matches and enters Saturday’s encounter three points back of sixthplaced Hapoel Ramat Hasharon.
The league will be split into two sections after each team completes two rounds of play with two more matches.
The top six teams will play each other twice more (10 matches in total) to decide the champion, while the bottom eight teams will play each other once more to determine the relegation battle.
Hapoel Ramat Gan hosts rock-bottom Hapoel Acre in a crucial showdown in the fight against relegation on Saturday, while Bnei Yehuda hosts Hapoel Beersheba and Ironi Kiryat Shmona visits Ramat Hasharon.
Beitar Jerusalem welcomes Maccabi Netanya on Sunday.
After stunning Maccabi Tel Aviv in the last 16 of the cup, Beitar was handed another cruel draw in the quarterfinals on Thursday, being paired with Maccabi Haifa in the last eight.
Beitar will host Haifa at Teddy Stadium on March 12/13, with threetime defending cup holder Hapoel Tel Aviv drawn to visit Hapoel Rishon Lezion of the National League, Ironi Kiryat Shmona to welcome Bnei Sakhnin and Hapoel Ramat Gan to visit the only remaining third-division side in the draw, Asi Gilboa.