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Photo by: Asaf Kilger
It’s time to get the ball rolling once again
By ALLON SINAI
19/08/2011
With Israeli Premier League set to kick off, here is a team-by-team preview of what to look out for at both ends of the table.
 
After a tumultuous summer, the Israeli Premier League makes its long-awaited return this weekend.

Reigning-champion Maccabi Haifa, the new-look Hapoel Tel Aviv and the rejuvenated Maccabi Tel Aviv are once more the favorites to claim the title, while the likes of Betar Jerusalem and Hapoel Petah Tikva are just happy to still be in existence and part of the top-flight.

After two seasons, normality returns to the Premier League, with the Israel Football Association dropping the controversial point-halving format and eliminating the mid-table playoff.

The IFA also decided to cut the league from 16 to 14 teams for the 2012/13 campaign, with three teams to be relegated this season and only one to gain promotion from the National League.

Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai takes a look at the 16 teams which will be battling it out for glory over the next nine months.

(Teams listed in order of last season’s finish)

MACCABI HAIFA

Despite losing four key players last summer, Haifa consolidated its position as the benchmark in Israeli soccer, claiming its fifth championship in eight seasons and laying to rest the ghosts of dropping the title to Hapoel Tel Aviv in the final seconds of the previous campaign.

The Greens will have to replace significant starters once more this season, with Lior Rafaelov (Club Brugge) and striker Tomer Hemed (RCD Mallorca) leaving for the continent and defender Arik Benado retiring.

After reaching the Champions League playoffs and ensuring itself a long continental campaign – as it will play in the Europa League group stage even if it goes out to KRC Genk – Haifa went on a buying spree, signing midfielder Tamir Cohen, defender Itzik Cohen and striker Alon Turgeman within 48 hours.

The Greens added nine players in total to their squad and no one will be able to discount underrated coach Elisha Levy again if Haifa manages to become the first Israeli side to win the championship while playing in European competition deep into the winter.

Player to watch out for: Dela Yampolsky.

After making his overdue breakthrough at Maccabi Netanya last season, the 23-yearold midfielder will be looking to establish his place as one of the league’s top players in the coming campaign.

Titles: Championships – 12 (1983/84, 1984/85, 1988/89, 1990/91, 1993/94, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2010/11). State Cups – 5 (1962, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998).

Best case: After guiding Haifa to its third title in four seasons, Levy is finally given more than a one-year contract extension by owner Jacob Shahar.

Worst case: Levy’s time at Kiryat Eliezer comes to an end after the Greens come up short in the title race.

HAPOEL TEL AVIV

Not much is left of the Hapoel team which in the past two seasons took a league title, two State Cups and also reached the Champions League group stage for the first time in club history.

New coach Dror Kashtan will have to mold a new team after Eran Zahavi (Palermo), Danny Bondarv (Volga Nizhny Novgorod), Gili Vermut (Kaiserslautern), Itai Shechter (Kaiserslautern), Ben Sahar (AJ Auxerre) and Vincent Enyeama (Lille) all left for the continent this summer.

Kashtan may be the most decorated coach in Israeli soccer history, but he has still got his work cut out for him if he’s to fill the big shoes left by Eli Gutman.

After winning the ownership battle with Moni Harel, Eli Tabib opened his pockets to sign talented striker Omer Damari from Maccabi Petah Tikva, Nigerian midfielder Nosa Igiebor and goalkeeper Apoula Edel.

However, a disappointing preseason and an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz in the Europa League mean there are plenty of question marks hanging over Hapoel as it embarks on a new era.

Player to watch out for: Mahmoud Abbas.

The 23-year-old namesake of the Palestinian Authority President showed plenty of promise at Hapoel Ashkelon last season, scoring seven league goals, and he will get a chance to really make a name for himself this season.

Titles: Championships – 8 (1956/57, 1965/66, 1968/69, 1980/81, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1999/00, 2009/10). State Cups – 9 (1960, 1972, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011).

Best case: Twelve years after leading Hapoel to a league title and 30 years after claiming his first championship as a coach, Kashtan adds a seventh Premier League triumph to his resume.

Worst case: Not only does Hapoel lose a derby match to Maccabi Tel Aviv for the first time since March 2008, but it even finishes one place below its arch-rival.

MACCABI TEL AVIV

After so many years of underachievement, the yellow-and-blue once more looks ready to challenge for the league title.

Maccabi has won just one championship in the past 15 years, and last season was especially depressing for its fans, after the team failed to put up a fight against Haifa and Hapoel despite having a budget of more than NIS 100 million.

Moti Ivanir replaced Avi Nimni and Yossi Mizrahi at the helm in January, and even though there was little improvement in results, owner Mitch Goldhar’s decision to hand the authoritarian a contract extension looks set to pay off in the long run.

Maccabi has impressed in the off-season, with Ivanir finally finding the right combination between big earning stars and the products of the youth department. If the early signs are anything to go by, not only will Maccabi fight for the championship until the very end, but it will also play very entertaining soccer this season.

Player to watch out for: Dor Micha. The 19-year-old midfielder impressed after making his debut for Maccabi in February and there should still be plenty to come from him when you consider that Israel under-19 coach Eli Ohana has labeled him as the most talented player of his generation.

Titles: Championships – 14 (1949/50, 1951/52, 1953/54, 1955/56, 1957/58, 1967/68, 1969/70, 1971/72, 1976/77, 1978/79, 1991/92, 1994/95, 1995/96, 2002/03). State Cups – 16 (1954, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2005).

Best case: Maccabi fans learn that the longer the wait the sweeter the triumph after their team clinches its first championship since 2003.

Worst case: Maccabi fans begin to believe that their club is simply cursed as another season passes by with the most decorated club in Israeli soccer not even coming close to claiming a title.

BNEI YEHUDA

The club from south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood has played in Europe in each of the last three seasons and it will be aiming for a fourth straight top five finish.

Yossi Abuksis replaced Dror Kashtan as coach after the latter moved to Hapoel Tel Aviv, and Bnei Yehuda should be the perfect stepping stone for the first-year manager.

Abuksis inherits a nearly identical squad to the one Kashtan guided last season, and despite a lack of depth, it will be a major disappointment if Bnei Yehuda fails to finish in the top half of the standings.

Player to watch out for: Amir Agajev. The 19-year-old striker will have plenty of opportunities to make his breakthrough this season with Abuksis having few other options up front.

Titles: Championships – 1 (1989/90). State Cups – 2 (1968, 1981).

Best case: Abuksis shows he learned plenty in his three-and-a-half years under the stewardship of Eli Gutman at Hapoel Tel Aviv, guiding Bnei Yehuda to European qualification for a fourth straight season.

Worst case: The financial problems following the departure of former owner Hezi Magen this summer result in Bnei Yehuda missing out on a place in the championship playoffs.

IRONI KIRYAT SHMONA

One of the surprises of last season, Kiryat Shmona will be desperate to avoid the second-season syndrome in 2011/12. After finishing their first ever campaign in the top flight in third place in 2007/08, the northerners were disappointingly relegated the following year.

Kiryat Shmona needed just one season to bounce back, and after last term’s success, and with Ran Ben-Shimon still in charge of team affairs, the side should be challenging for a place in Europe yet again rather than battling it out with the league’s strugglers.

Player to watch out for: Adrian Rochet. If the 24-year-old midfield dynamo builds on last season’s excellent displays he will be playing on a far bigger stage in the very near future.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.

Best case: Kiryat Shmona makes amends for missing out on a place in continental competition last season and qualifies for the Europa League.

Worst case: Kiryat Shmona finds its true place in the league and finishes in the middle of the standings.

MACCABI NETANYA

Netanya exceeded all expectations last season, making the championship playoffs despite being one of the favorites for relegation.

Reuven Atar has held on to most of his young stars, with the likes of Hen Ezra, Kobi Dajani and Firas Mugrabi all choosing to spend another year under the coach that helped them make their breakthroughs last season.

The promising Ben Binyamin has come in from Hapoel Acre and if Atar can create something out of nothing yet again, Netanya should be one of the team’s to watch out for this season.

Player to watch out for: Hen Ezra. Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv may regret not completing the signing of the 22-yearold midfielder this summer as his price could well rocket if he continues at his current rate of progress.

Titles: Championships – 5 (1970/71, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1982/83).

State Cups – 1 (1978).

Best case: Netanya is nowhere near the bottom and remains one of the more entertaining teams in the league.

Worst case: Even Atar can’t help Netanya from plunging into the relegation playoffs.

MACCABI PETAH TIKVA

After last season’s disappointment, the Luzons brought in coach Marco Balbul in the hope of making a return to European competition. Petah Tikva has gone through wholesale changes, with 10 players leaving and seven joining so far. Balbul has built a solid and balanced squad, but he too knows that he will be gone before too long if his team doesn’t begin winning immediately.

Player to watch out for: Tal Ben-Haim. The 22-year-old found the back of the net on his Israel debut in March and he should score far more than the 10 league goals he managed last season now that Omer Damari has left.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 1 (1952).

Best case: Petah Tikva celebrates its first season in the new stadium by reaching Europe.

Worst case: The new stadium is all but empty as Petah Tikva wallows in mediocrity.

HAPOEL ACRE

Acre was a pleasant surprise last season, but coach Eli Cohen has got his work cut out for him in the coming campaign.

Acre lost four key players in Itzik Cohen (Maccabi Haifa), Maharan Radi (Bnei Sakhnin), Ben Binyamin (Maccabi Netanya) and Roei Dayan (Beerschot), although Cohen has tried to make up for that with the shrewd signings of Moshe Mishaelof, Nisso Kapiloto and Amiya Taga.

The biggest difference this season could well be Acre’s long-overdue return home, with its new stadium to be completed in the coming weeks.

Player to watch out for: Sintiyahu Salalik.

The 20-year-old winger showed some promising signs at Maccabi Haifa last season and has the platform to succeed on loan at Acre.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.

Best case: Cohen finally gets the credit he deserves after Acre easily avoids the relegation battles once more.

Worst case: After three years in the Premier League, Acre is relegated and returns to soccer wilderness.

HAPOEL BEERSHEBA

Beersheba has finished in ninth position in the last two seasons and there’s no real reason to expect much more this time around.

Nir Klinger begins his second season as coach, and even though the addition of Laryea Kingston was one of the better pieces of business in the Israeli transfer market this summer, it is hard to see Beersheba fans getting their wish of seeing the team finish in the top five.

Player to watch out for: Ido Eksbard. The 23-year-old has got all the attributes needed to become a top striker.

Titles: Championships – 2 (1974/75, 1975/76). State Cups – 1 (1997).

Best case: Klinger is embraced by the local support after Beersheba claims victories over the big four.

Worst case: Beersheba gets tangled up in the relegation battle and Klinger is just another name on the ever-growing list of coaches to be chased out of town.

HAPOEL HAIFA

After a year in exile at Hapoel Ashkelon and Hapoel Beersheba, fan-favorite Eran Levy returns to Hapoel Haifa and his leftfooted shots will be the main attraction in the team’s matches once more.

Star-striker Eden Ben-Basat left for French club Brest, but coach Nitzan Shirazi has otherwise held on to his rising stars and there’s no reason Haifa shouldn’t manage a midtable finish yet again.

Player to watch out for: Oshri Roash.

Another impressive season by the 23-yearold defender and surely he will be playing at a bigger club next year.

Titles: Championships – 1 (1998\99). State Cups – 3 (1963, 1966, 1974), Best case: A derby win over the Greens caps an otherwise eventless season.

Worst case: Shirazi is back commentating on TV after Haifa drops to the National League.

BETAR JERUSALEM

To say that Betar has been through a turbulent summer would be one of the understatements of the year. The future looked bright just three weeks ago when Americans Dan Adler and Adam Levin promised to return the club to its former glory after agreeing to purchase it from Arkadi Gaydamak.

However, they quickly deserted the club, and with little money to strengthen the squad, David Amsalem resigned as coach just this past Monday. Difficult days lie ahead for the Betar faithful and no one should envy new coach Yuval Naim.

Player to watch out for: Eli Dasa. The 18- year-old right-back broke into the Betar lineup last season and should play an even bigger role this term.

Titles: Championships – 6 (1986/87, 1992/93, 1996/97, 1997/98, 2006/07, 2007/08). State Cups – 7 (1976, 1979, 1985, 1986, 1989, 2008, 2009).

Best case: Betar finally enjoys a quiet season while it waits for a new investor to come in and take it back to the good old days.

Worst case: Betar doesn’t secure its survival until the final minutes of the campaign.

ASHDOD SC

Yossi Mizrahi is once more at the helm in Ashdod, but this time he will have to manage without Dimitar Makriev, Idan Shirki and Moshe Ohayon, who led the side for much of the past three seasons. David Revivo returns home from Hapoel Beersheba, but owner Jacky Ben-Zaken will judge Mizrahi by the progress made by the products of the youth department in which he has invested heavily in recent years.

Player to watch out for: Gadi Kinde. The 17-year-old midfielder, who came through the Ashdod youth department, has been earmarked as one of Israel’s top talents.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.

Best case: Mizrahi’s youngsters improve with every week and Ashdod makes the championship playoffs.

Worst case: Mizrahi pays the price for his squad’s inexperience as Ashdod slips into the relegation playoffs.

BNEI SAKHNIN

Shlomi Dora seemed to bring some peace to Sakhnin when he joined in April, settling the club and steering it clear of relegation.

However, he will be hoping to go one better this season and completely avoid the relegation playoffs.

With the core of last season’s squad still around and Maharan Radi, Ohad Kadusi and Ori Shitrit all joining, Sakhnin has every chance of maintaining its Premier League status without too much trouble.

Player to watch out for: Mahmud Kannadil.

The 23-year-old has established his place as Sakhnin’s first goalkeeper and will have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 1 (2004).

Best case: Dora is still the coach when the season ends after Sakhnin happily settles for a mid-table finish.

Worst case: Sakhnin gets off to a poor start and Dora is gone before the end of the year.

HAPOEL PETAH TIKVA

Petah Tikva fans are still celebrating the fact their club is in the top flight after the Budget Control Authority had relegated it at one stage due to its financial struggles.

Petah Tikva eventually posted the mandatory minimum budget, but it still begins the season with a nine-point deduction after going into liquidation last month.

As if matters weren’t bad enough, Gili Landau quit as the coach of the bankrupt club on Tuesday before changing his mind and returning to the helm the following day.

Player to watch out for: Fabian Stoller. The 23-year-old Swiss midfielder impressed last season and deserves to play for a more organized club.

Titles: Championships – 6 (1954\55, 1958\59, 1959\60, 1960\61, 1961\62, 1962\63). State Cups – 2 (1957, 1992).

Best case: Petah Tikva fights relegation until the final seconds of the season.

Worst case: It takes Petah Tikva two months to even erase its nine-point deduction and it never breaks out of the bottom three.

HAPOEL RAMAT HASHARON

Ramat Hasharon will play in the Premier League for the first time in its history and its coach Momi Zafran has even taken a sabbatical from his day-time job as an accountant to focus on soccer matters.

There are few familiar faces in Zafran’s squad, but after winning the National League so impressively last season, he will be confident his players are good enough for the Premier League as well.

Player to watch out for: Baruch Dego. The 30-year-old was one of the Israel’s top players when he scored four Champions League goals for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004/05. He slipped off the radar in recent seasons, playing in Cyprus, and it will be intriguing to see if there is anything left of the old Dego.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.

Best case: Ramat Hasharon’s first ever season in the top flight is followed by a second.

Worst case: After one year, Ramat Hasharon is back where it belongs – in the National League.

HAPOEL RISHON LEZION

Rishon Lezion was playing in the third division just over two years ago. But two promotions in three seasons have got its fans dreaming of the good olds days when it played nine straight seasons in the top flight until its relegation in 2003.

Nisso Yehezkel will be coaching in the Premier League for the first time in his career and his ability to get Rishon to play better than the sum of its parts will decide how the team fares.

Player to watch out for: David Gomez.

After scoring 14 league goals for Rishon last season, the 22-year-old Brazilian striker will be looking to prove he has what it takes to play in the top flight.

Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.

Best case: Rishon surprises everyone and avoids relegation in the last week of the season.

Worst case: Even Hapoel Petah Tikva finishes ahead of Rishon.
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