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Maccabi Haifa put away Maccabi Petah Tikva yesterday and leapfrogged over Maccabi Netanya to the top of the Premier League, but if there was one loser on the Haifa side, it was Shlomi Arbeitman. The Haifa striker tried desperately to make the most of his opportunity to prove that he deserved to be in the starting lineup rather than Thembinkosi Fanteni. He spent almost an hour seeking that elusive goal, feeling the South African's breath down his neck, but to no avail. He just didn't have it.

With the score level at 1-1, Elisha Levy, Haifa's coach, realized that Arbeitman would not deliver. He sent his striker to the bench, and Fanteni proceeded with elegance and style to show how it's done. The very first time he touched the ball, in the 57th minute, he took a pass from Biram Kiyal and threaded the ball into the net to give Haifa the lead. In the 86th minute, he polished off the game - and Arbeitman - with an arcing shot over the head of Petah Tikva goalkeeper Ohad Cohen.

"The fans saw a fast-paced and enjoyable match," said coach Levy after the game. "We opened a little hesitantly, but quickly took control of the game. It's still early to talk about a championship, but we're aiming high."

Guy Azouri's team did not show much hunger to bring home any points last night. They neglected Haifa's side of the pitch for most of the game, never seriously threatening to strike back. Had it not been for the negligence of Alon Harazi and Leonard Krupnik in the 49th minute, Lior Asulin would not have had the chance to equalize. Still, credit Asulin for capitalizing on the miscue. It was the team's only bright moment after Ya'akov Ganon scored an own goal to put Petah Tikva behind.

"When you don't take advantage of opportunities against Haifa you lose," said Azouri. "We weren't present for too many minutes during the game."

In Kiryat Shmona, without the suspended Derek Boateng and Barak Itzhaki, Beitar Jerusalem was just another Premier League team yesterday. The hosts were determined not to cut the defending champions any breaks. The northerners kept up the pressure in the first half, proving third time is the charm.

Eden Ben Basat got the first chance to score in the 17th minute but made a weak kick. In the 42nd minute Yuval Avidor broke loose on the right flank and laced a shot to Omer Peretz, but the striker's shot went above the undefended goal. However, two minutes later, Avidor swerved around Shimon Gershon on the left side and passed the ball to Ben Basat, who scored the game's only goal.

To the chagrin of some thousand fans, the players of Hakoah Ramat Gan and Bnei Sakhnin ignored a sign reading "Warning - entering the pitch is a criminal offense" yesterday, thus subjecting viewers to 90 minutes of anemic soccer between two teams devoid of tactical understanding that fielded players with minimal technical skills. The result was a scoreless draw.

It was the derby between the league's two poorest clubs, and the leading candidates for relegation. The first half was the worst that Hakoah had played all season, said coach Dudu Dahan. When asked against whom his club would collect points if not Bnei Sakhnin, Dahan said everybody would just have to "wait and see."

Hapoel Tel Aviv left it late at home, as Shimon Abuhatzira scored in the 88th minute to give Hapoel the victory over Bnei Yehuda.

David Marouani adds:

Despite the chance to take a share at the top, Maccabi Tel Aviv officials say they are flustered because they cannot sell more tickets for tonight's match against league-leading contender Maccabi Netanya. Only 1,000 tickets were sold through last night.

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv coach Ran Ben Shimon is expected to play with the 2-3 offense that beat Bnei Sakhnin last week, except that Lior Jan will play for Ori Shitrit, who is experiencing ankle pains. That means Rudy Haddad and Jonathan Assous will both open the game on the bench.