Soccer-Maccabi Haifa suffer blow as Israel playoffs start

JERUSALEM, April 23 Sat Apr 23, 2011 11:42pm BST

JERUSALEM, April 23 (Reuters) - Maccabi Haifa suffered a setback in their effort to regain the Israeli league title on Saturday when they lost 2-1 at home to Maccabi Netanya at the start of the playoffs.

Haifa had 70 points at the end of the regular season and a five-point lead over defending champions Hapoel Tel Aviv but under the playoff system, where points are halved, their lead is now only two points and Tel Aviv could overtake them on Monday.

Saturday's loss could prove a psychological blow for the club that lost the title to Hapoel on goal difference in the final seconds of last season.

Under the controversial playoff system, which is in the second year of a two-season experiment, all points accrued are cut by half after 30 rounds of play and the 16-team league is split into three groups.

Teams who ended the regular season with an odd number of points had their total rounded up.

The top six sides play each other for the championship and places in Europe next season, the bottom six play to avoid the two relegation spots and one relegation playoff place and the middle four play for cash incentives.

Some clubs, such as Haifa, oppose the system, saying it diminishes their dominating performances in the earlier part of the season and gives less deserving clubs an unfair chance of catching them.

Israeli Football Association chairman Avi Luzon has hinted that clubs may be asked to vote on whether they want the system to continue. (Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)