Soccer / Premier League / Maccabi Haifa Closing in on Maccabi Tel Aviv

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Maccabi Haifa stands five points behind league leader Maccabi Tel Aviv after Saturday’s hard-fought 1-0 victory over Bnei Sakhnin at a blustery Doha stadium. But it was another day of frustration for third-placed Hapoel Tel Aviv, as Yossi Abukasis’ charges threw away a lead in the last minute against Kiryat Shmona.

Maccabi Haifa registered its 11th win out of 14 games since Arik Benado took over as head coach in December, and if Maccabi Tel Aviv trips up in the coming weeks it could even challenge for the Premier League title. Not that the green machine looked anything like champions Saturday: After a dull first half in which neither side produced goal-scoring chances, Wiyam Amashe blasted in the game’s only goal two minutes after the break.

Haifa’s young midfielder Jaber Ataa’s debut for the senior team was ruined in the 60th minute when he was yellow-carded for the second time following a questionable foul, but despite its numerical disadvantage Haifa held off Sakhin’s late rally. Sakhnin pressed hard for the equalizer as the game wore on, but time and again the final pass went astray. In fact, the host’s best chances came from set pieces rather than outfield play.

“It was an important win for us,” Benado said after the game. “The conditions were difficult, Sakhnin played a competitive game and we spent the last half hour with 10 men. I’m very pleased with this professional performance. Ataa played very well and was instrumental in our goal. He didn’t deserve the red card.”

Benado refused to be drawn on his team’s title chances. “We’re not thinking too far ahead we’re just taking every game at a time,” he said.

Third-placed Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Abukasis is under even more pressure to resign after his team could only manage a 1-1 home draw with defending champion Hapoel Kiryat Shmona at the Bloomfield Stadium.

The Reds were by far the better team during a rain-swept first half, but could not turn their advantage into goals. In fact it was Kiryat Shmona that should have taken the lead on the hour, but Tel Aviv had Portuguese defender Tiago Costa to thank for two successive blocks on the goal line, with his goalkeeper Edel Apoula well beaten.

Tel Aviv looked to have sealed the game when Salim Toama powered in a curling 30-meter free kick in the 83rd minute, but as the home fans were celebrating their first win after four successive defeats, Kiryat Shmona right back Elad Gabai lifted a deep cross into the box for the unmarked Ahmed Abed to head the ball home in the 90th minute.

Hapoel Acre, which hadn’t won for 16 games, leapfrogged over Hapoel Haifa out of the bottom place in the league. Acre controlled the first half despite going behind in the 37th minute to a goal by Serbian forward Stefan Scepovic, who was Acre’s top scorer last season.

The home team came out fighting in the second half, and its Serbian midfielder Nebojsa Marinkovic restored parity five minutes after the break with a sweet free kick. Acre took the lead with one of the best goals seen this season in Israel, as Guy Dayan spotted Haifa goalkeeper Ofir Martziano off his line and looped the ball over the helpless goalkeeper’s head from fully 45 minutes. Acre’s recent signing, Serbian forward Nemnia Arsenevic, sealed the result.

ON HIS WAY OUT? Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Yossi Abukasis fielding the fans’ ire on Saturday. Credit: Sefi Magrisso