Haifa half-way to championship
Strike force: Yaniv Katan in earlier Euro action against Bayern Munich
Maccabi Haifa have consolidated their position as runaway leaders of the Israeli Premier Division with a 2-0 victory over Bnei Yehuda.
Goals by Shlomi Arbeitman and Yaniv Katan placed Haifa on 39 points from 14 games, nine clear of nearest challengers Hapoel Tel Aviv, as the regular season nears the half-way mark.
Former Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers manager John Gregory earned his first point in charge of Maccabi Ahi Nazareth. The 3-3 draw with Maccabi Tel Aviv ensured they moved up to second bottom on goal difference above Hapoel Petach -Tikva, who lost by a single goal to Maccabi Netanya.
Elsewhere, Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Akko gained thrilling 3-2 away wins, at Hapoel Beer Sheva and Maccabi Petach –Tikva respectively to move away from the relegation area.
Betar Jerusalem, who are only in fifth place, continued their recent revival with a 1-0 win over Hapoel Ramat Gan, Ashdod and Bnei Sakhin drew 0-0 and Hapoel Tel Aviv thrashed Ra’anana 5-0 to stay second.
This season has seen the first-ever 16-team league in Israel, up from 12 teams. An elongated season, which includes three different play-off sections to determine final standings, will see up to five extra matches for each team, which could mean teams going head-to-head in potentially decisive fixtures right up to the last day of the season.
A spokesman for the Israeli Football Association said that the excitement generated towards the end of the season will ensure higher than normal ratings: “We believe that the main televised matches broadcast towards the end of the regular season will see nearly 20 per cent audience share, and this is before the play-offs begin.”
On the question of whether Israeli football has enough strength in depth to run a competitive 16-team league when a similar-sized football nation like Scotland has 12, the spokesman said: “The so-called ‘weaker’ clubs have competed well so far.”