JERUSALEM Maccabi Tel Aviv became Israeli champions for a record 20th time on Monday when they sealed the Premier League title with a 2-0 win over hosts Hapoel Ramat Hasharon.
The result gave Tel Aviv an unassailable 13-point lead over second-placed Maccabi Haifa with four matches remaining and will see them play in the preliminary rounds of next season's Champions League.
Against Ramat Hasharon, Maccabi continued their dominant form and secured the points with a 19th-minute goal by midfielder Dor Micha and a 78th-minute strike by Swedish forward Rade Prica.
The National Stadium in Tel Aviv erupted in a loud cheer as the final whistle sounded and players and club staff celebrated by dancing around the centre circle and completing a lap of honour to allow their success-starved fans to applaud.
Fearing a crowd crush, Tel Aviv police forced Ramat Hasharon to move the fixture from their tiny home ground in a suburb north of Tel Aviv to the National Stadium.
They were rewarded by a tenfold increase in attendance as some 40,000 spectators, almost all supporting Maccabi, turned out to celebrate.
Maccabi, founded in 1905, are Israel's most revered team and the most successful in previous decades, but titles have been scarce in recent years and their previous league crown was won on goal difference from Maccabi Haifa in 2002-03.
The change in the club's fortunes was brought about through large investment by Canadian owner, Mitch Goldhar, who imported overseas training staff led by manager Oscar Garcia, formerly Barcelona's youth coach, and technical manager Jordi Cruyff.
"I want to thank all my players for being so professional, all the people at the club for their hard work, the fans who supported us all the way, and Maccabi Haifa, who had a very good season and pushed us hard to the end," a beaming Garcia said.
Goldhar, who took over the club four years ago, was praised by pundits for breaking Maccabi's old mould of under-achievement and perceived arrogance and instilling a new culture of success, modesty and hard work.
"This is the fourth year of a process and we are seeing the fruits of the labour of that process... work ethic, commitment, respect for people... are all things we have had to implement but we still have a way to go," Goldhar said.
(Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Toby Davis)