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(photo credit: AP)
The 2006/07 season appeared to be boundless in its promise for Israel's representatives in the English and Spanish Premier Leagues.
All the omens were positive. Yossi Benayoun was excellent in his first season with West Ham United; Tal Ben-Haim had become one of the first names on the Bolton team sheet; Idan Tal finally signed a lucrative contract to join Ben-Haim at Reebok Stadium; and Dudu Awat got the big move he wanted so badly, signing for top Spanish side Deportivo La Coru a.
All four players seemed to be poised for the season of their lives.
However, less than four months into the season, matters have gone horribly wrong for three of the four Israeli internationals.
As strange as it may sound now, the future of West Ham and Benayoun seemed brighter than ever in the summer.
The star and captain of the national team scored five goals and passed eight assists in a fantastic first season for the Hammers, helping the team qualify for a European-wide competition for the first team in years. Young manager Alan Pardew was the toast of England and multi-millionaires from around the world were bidding to buy the club.
Today, more than halfway into the season, the Hammers are out of Europe, 18th in the Premier League standings and are looking like a relegation favorite. Pardew is the manager of Charlton Athletic after being sacked by the club and new boss Alan Curbishley is still licking his wounds from a 6-0 thrashing by Reading on Monday.
Benayoun has played well below the standard he displayed last season and if the English tabloids are anything to go by, then he could be playing for a different club very soon. The midfielder, who is being linked with half-a-dozen teams ranging from Bolton to Betar Jerusalem, has taken part in 18 of the Hammers' league matches, failing to score and only passing a couple of assists.
West Ham and Benayoun have 16 matches to escape relegation, but the early signs aren't good.
"When a new manager takes over, it's the players who get the results because you have to rely on what they have been doing and perhaps hope some things happen and you pick up a couple of results," Curbishley said after Monday's drubbing.
He also sent a message to Benayoun and his teammates. "The players have shown me in the last couple of weeks why they are down there. We're very fragile and really no-one held their hand up in terms of keeping us in the game.
"They're not Premiership players until they've done five or six years in the Premiership - some of them have only done one-and-a-bit seasons in the Premiership.
"The Premiership is unforgiving when you don't attack it right. You have to dig in and do the right things."
Benayoun agreed with every word. "I am ashamed. I am shocked at the way we played. We played like a bunch of drunks," Benayoun told Ma'ariv about the Reading match.
"If we keep on playing like this, we will definitely be relegated. The situation is very bad. I felt like crying."
West Ham's next match is a London derby against Fulham and Benayoun believes the club cannot afford to lose. "If we lose against Fulham, we will be digging a grave for ourselves.
"It's become the most important game of the season. Hopefully, everyone will wake up now and give more than 100% of their ability."
Dudu Awat's situation in Spain is just as tricky as Benayoun's. After two years at Racing Santander, Awat made a dream move last summer to Deportivo La Coru a. But any hopes the 'keeper had of titles and Continental glory quickly vanished after Deportivo struggled to win at the start of the season.
The club now finds itself only four points above the relegation zone and Awat is getting more accustomed to picking the ball out of his net than he'd like to. The team has collected only one point in its last five league matches and conceded 14 goals.
Awat has actually been one of the better players at La Coru a this season, but with the club having the second-worst attack in the league, even the Israeli's best is well short of what's needed.
"This is a team with a good defense, midfield and attack. The coach is a winner and this is a club that creates interest in Spain and in Europe," Awat said after signing for Deportivo. The Israeli's words sound today more than anything like wishful thinking, but with more than half of the season to play, all is far from being lost.
However, for Awat to avoid eating his words at season's end, the team will need to start winning as soon as the Spanish league resumes on January 7, when Deportivo host Real Madrid.
Idan Tal faces an entirely different problem to the one Benayoun and Awat are dealing with. Bolton is playing well and is fighting for a Champions League berth, but Tal can't work his way into the lineup.
The midfielder has only started twice in the Premier League and has come on nine times as a substitute. Tal has failed to convince coach Sam Allardyce to hand him a permanent starting role and for the second time in his career is failing to secure substantial playing time in England.
In the 2001/02 season, Tal joined Everton but was only in the starting lineup once and was reduced to six appearances as a substitute. After a short stint at Spanish club Rayo Vallecano the following season, he returned to Maccabi Haifa and helped the team to three straight league championships.
Tal was desperate for a new challenge at the end of last season and when Bolton came calling, he chose to leave the comforts of Haifa for the challenge of the English Premier League.
Ironically, Tal's prospects of playing could well depend on Bolton's lack of success. Should the club continue its impressive start to the season, the midfielder will likely need to console himself with watching his teammates playing from the best seat in the stadium.
However, should the Wanderers hit a rough patch of form, then Tal could well be thrown back into the mix and finally get the playing time he desires so badly.
Unlike his fellow Israel teammates, Tal Ben-Haim's only problem is to choose between a lucrative contract offer from Bolton and a money-spinning transfer to one of England's top sides.
Ben Haim's contract expires in the summer of 2007 and with the transfer window now open, he is free to open negotiations with interested parties. Ben-Haim has been his reliable self once again this season, starting 20 of his side's league matches so far.
His displays at center-back as well as right- and left-back have attracted many suitors, but Bolton chairman Phil Gartside is prepared to make him an attractive offer to keep him at Reebok Stadium.
"We have been talking to Tal for quite a while," said Gartside on Tuesday. "We will make him an offer he cannot refuse."
AP contributed to this report.
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