Maccabi stretch their lead at the top of the table to eight points after beating Hapoel Beer Sheva 3-1 at Bloomfield

Much like last year at the same stage of the Israeli Premier ("Winner") League season, Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight hosted second-placed Hapoel Beer Sheva in matchday 2 of the top-six playoffs holding a five point lead at the top of the table. And much like last year, the home side made quick work of taking an early lead, last year provided by striker Barak Badash in the first minute, this year within the first three by midfielder Eran Zahavi, who charged in on the right to receive a pitch-perfect chip from striker Eden Ben Basat from outside the area and smash home his first of two goals on the night and his 23rd of the season. And much like last year, Maccabi went on to win the tie, last year 2-0, this year 3-1, to send themselves eight points clear at the top with eight games left to the season.

After Zahavi's quick goal Maccabi continued to dominate in the early stages of the match and on 22 minutes the prolific midfielder came close to doubling the home-side advantage. This time the provider was midfielder Dor Micha, who like Ben Basat caught Zahavi charging in on the right, but this time Beer Sheva goalkeeper Austin Ejide was there to stop his finish. Just before the break Zahavi also played a role in what also came close to being Maccabi's second when he took a smart pass from fellow midfielder Nosa Igiebor, charged down the left and crossed back to Nikola Mitrovic at the top of the 16-yard box. The Serbian midfielder first tapped the ball down before volleying just wide of the upper left-hand corner of the net. At half time the score remained 1-0.


Maccabi's hopes of carrying their lead throughout the second half were quickly dashed when less than two minutes in a long ball found Beer Sheva's Elyaniv Barda racing down the Maccabi half between two central defenders, Eytan Tibi and Carlos Garcia. The striker then picked out winger Ma'or Buzaglo in the centre and Beer Sheva's leading goalscorer rounded keeper Juan Pablo to fire into an open net. At 1-1 and after a subsequent period of good possession by the visitor's, Eden Ben Basat raised hopes for the home side when he cut into the area to receive a long ball from Eran Zahavi but his finish hit the side netting. It was then that Maccabi head coach Pako Ayestaran sent on winger Tal Ben Chaim for Nosa Igiebor, a substitution that proved its worth later on. On 69 minutes Maccabi's Swedish striker Rade Prica came on after long injury to replace Ben Basat, and the fresh pair of legs put extra bite in the Maccabi attack. Ten minutes later it was the earlier substitute, Tal Ben Chaim, who restored Maccabi's lead with a splendid individual effort, moving in down the left and returning to the middle before firing past Ejide. But the final touch was left to Zahavi, who four minutes later drilled home his 24th goal of the season from inside the area after receiving a back pass from Dor Micha from the right side of the goal, Micha's second assist on the night. With the score 3-1 and the tie out of reach, Beer Sheva substitute Siraj Nassar saw red for a dangerous challenge on Maccabi captain Sheran Yeini. But by then it was crystal clear which side had held the day and Maccabi Tel Aviv will go into their third play-off tie at Ironi Kiryat Shmona next Monday night with their dream of an historic third straight championship one step closer to becoming a reality.

Ben Haim