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Not since May 1989 has Hapoel Tel Aviv found itself facing a game that, if it doesn't win, could lead to relegation to the second division. Tonight at Bloomfield, against Hapoel Be'er Sheva, Tel Aviv has one of its last three chances to ensure its Premier League survival.

When Tal Chen told reporters yesterday that he barely sleeps at night, he was not being overly dramatic. And when Assi Domb described tonight's game as "one of the most important I've ever take part in," he was not exaggerating.

Yossi Abuksis, who was on the Hapoel squad that was relegated in 1989, admitted, "No one needs to tell us how important this game is. We know the schedule of games very well, and we understand full we that if we don't beat Be'er Sheva, we will find it very difficult indeed to stay in the Premier League. No one even wants to think about what happens if we don't win."

The possibility of relegation is not being openly discusses at Hapoel Tel Aviv. It is clear, however, that if the club is forced to play in the second division next season, it will have to change beyond recognition. But even as it tries to reduce expenditure and budget, Hapoel could find itself facing some unusual problems.

Rather surprisingly, coach Shiya Feigenbaum could be one of the big winners if Hapoel drops out of the Premier League. If Jackie Ben-Zakan takes over management of the club, he will appoint Yossi Mizrahi as coach. In addition, if Hapoel avoids the drop, senior executives are in favor of appointing a director of soccer. If the team is relegated, however, team bosses are likely to make do with a second- or third-tier coach; here, Feigenbaum's wealth of experience in the second division could stand him in good stead.

Another problem that Hapoel could face if relegated is related to the club's huge wage bill - some of its players are among the highest earners in the league.

Practice makes perfect

The Hapoel players held their final training session yesterday ahead of tonight's match.Some 13,000 Tel Aviv fans are expected at Bloomfield for the critical game, while the visiting Be'er Sheva team is expected to bring some 2,000 fans of its own.

John Penstil is expected to return to the starting line-up, after an enforced absence of almost two months. Feigenbaum will decide whether to include Abuksis in the first team some time before kick-off.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva owner Eli Zino told his players that "this is the game of your lives, and I expect you to give all you have to give."

The players were put through their paces for the last time yesterday ahead of tonight's clash in Tel Aviv. The atmosphere was good, and coach Michael Kadosh, who has a full squad of players to chose from, was in an upbeat mood.

"We're in fine fettle and we're going through a good period. In my opinion, we're in better form than Hapoel Tel Aviv and we are going to Bloomfield to win. That said, we must not forget who we are playing against. Tel Aviv is fighting for exactly the same thing we are, and that makes the whole thing much more difficult."