(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
The Premier League season is just seven matches old, but Maccabi Haifa has already achieved something no team managed last season.
Haifa’s 2-0 victory at Maccabi Tel Aviv on Monday night means it has already beaten the two leading forces in Israeli soccer over recent seasons after defeating reigning champion Hapoel Beersheba 2-1 earlier in the campaign.
Despite its impressive victories over the local powerhouses, there remain plenty of question marks regarding Haifa’s ability to mount a serious challenge for the championship.
Haifa dominated the Premier League in the first decade of the 21st century, but has had little to celebrate over recent campaigns, winning its last championship in 2010/11. The team claimed its first title in five years and first State Cup in 18 years under the guidance of coach Roni Levy last season, but the Greens only finished fourth in the league standings.
Levy was sacked in late July, one season into a three-year contract, after clashing time and again with the club’s new Norwegian sports director Tor-Kristian Karlsen. An embarrassing European exit against Nomme Kalju of Estonia in the Europa League second qualifying round didn’t help his cause.
Rene Meulensteen, who served as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United between 2008 and 2013, was brought in to replace Levy despite having little head coaching experience.
The team has shown consistent improvement under his stewardship, losing only once in seven games. However, while it has already beaten both Maccabi and Beersheba, Haifa has won only three matches overall this season, struggling to break down lesser foes.
Haifa is only four points back of the top two, but it will need to start to regularly beat teams from the bottom half of the standings to keep in touch with the leaders, starting with Saturday’s match against Hapoel Ashkelon.
“The game against Maccabi was an important game but it is just three points,” said Meulensteen. “This is another step in the right direction.”
Ashkelon is winless in six games since defeating Hapoel Haifa in its opener.
Also Saturday, Hapoel Tel Aviv goes for its third consecutive win when it hosts Hapoel Kfar Saba. Hapoel Haifa visits Bnei Sakhnin and Hapoel Ra’anana welcomes Ashdod SC.
On Sunday, Beersheba hosts Maccabi Tel Aviv in a top-of-the-table clash, while Maccabi Petah Tikva faces Ironi Kiryat Shmona.
Beitar Jerusalem welcomes Bnei Yehuda on Monday.