This was no great advert for Israeli soccer. League leader Maccabi Tel Aviv produced a tepid performance against its great crosstown rival Hapoel, losing 1-0 to a soft penalty in a packed Bloomfield stadium Sunday night.

Hapoel came into the game with low morale following a run of four successive defeats, and could only look at its table-topping rival with envy. For the first time since 2004-05, Maccabi was six points clear of Hapoel - not that the league standings bore any relation to what occurred on the field.

The game started nervously, with both teams guilty of misplaced passes and overzealous tackles that resulted in repeated free kicks that came to nothing. The first half was a drab affair, with few scoring chances at either end until the 40th minute, when Hapoel's frail-looking defense allowed Maccabi's Eliran Atar to shoot goalward for the first time in the game, but Hapoel defender Ze'ev Haimovich's arm got in the way and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. But Atar's lazy penalty kick was parried low to his right by Hapoel's Armenian goalkeeper Apoula Edel, who also saved a penalty in his last game, against Maccabi Netanya a week ago.

This was the only event of note in an otherwise forgettable first half.

Maccabi appeared scared of launching an attack, and then found itself a man down five minutes after the break when Spanish midfielder Gonzalo Garcia was justifiably red-carded for pulling down Hapoel's Omer Damari just outside the penalty box.

The game continued to be a scrappy affair and hardly justified the pre-match hype, with neither side having obvious talent to take advantage of. Ten-man Maccabi then proceeded to throw the game away as Ivorian defender Steve Gohouri foolishly brought down Roei Gordana, and Damari made no mistake from the penalty spot.

Ten minutes from the end, Gohouri let his nerves get the better of him and shoved a Hapoel player in the back - an offense that should be punished with a red card - sparking what almost turned into an unnecessary brawl as both sets of players bore down on the scene of the crime, but the incident petered out as Gohouri got away with a yellow card.

Five minutes from time Hapoel's Salim Toama sent a sweet pass from the halfway line to leave Hanan Maman only Vincent Enyeama to beat, but the striker seemed to think he had all the time in the world, and the goalkeeper thankfully scooped the ball from under his feet. Then Maccabi's Eliran Atar was put through in the last minute of regulation time, but appeared to control the ball with his arm and was promptly sent off to complete the embarrassment.

Maccabi coach Oscar Garcia put on a brave face after the game: "The difference between the teams today was that Hapoel scored a penalty, while we missed a penalty," he said.