(photo credit: Allon Sinai)
The 2006/07 Premier League season gets under way this weekend, after a one-week delay caused by the war in the North.
While Maccabi Haifa is looking for its fourth straight league championship and Roni Levy returns as coach, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Betar Jerusalem - the second and third place finishers last season - both decided that they needed new coaches in order to challenge Haifa's dominance.
The defending champion has won five of the last six Premier League titles, including the last three, and will be looking to do so yet again with an experienced and well-balanced squad.
To balance the departures of Idan Tal, Michael Zandberg and Arik Benado, Levy has brought in dynamic forward Alain Masudi from Maccabi Netanya, Maor Melikson from Betar Jerusalem and Abas Suan from Bnei Sakhnin.
Haifa is arguably one of the most organized and well-managed clubs in Israel and another championship looks inevitable, considering the form displayed against Liverpool in the third qualifying round of the Champions League.
Russian-Jewish tycoon Arkady Gaydamak is not sparing any means to bring his club into the spotlight, assembling the most expensive team in Premier League history so far.
Derek Boateng, Toto Tamuz, Shimon Gershon, Arik Benado and Michael Zandberg have been signed, giving new coach Ossie Ardiles lots of options on the field. The team has already sold about 8,000 season tickets, the highest number in recent years.
Ardiles, who played for Argentina when it won the World Cup in 1978, has been given a clear instruction to win the local title and also show progress in Europe. Anything less than that will be considered as a failure in the nation's capital.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
The yellow-and-blue have gone through another rough summer, but the expectations are as high as ever, despite a modest budget and mediocre signings made in the offseason.
The biggest acquisition made by Eli Cohen is Hapoel Petah Tikva's Yossi Shivkhon. The slick playmaker, who was one of last season's top league performers, will be counted upon to provide the spark in attack and assume the midfield duties.
Maccabi will also field veteran captain Avi Nimni, who will be joining the management staff at the end of the season - the 19th of his illustrious career. Former Croatian international Giovanni Rosso, who was a part of last season's disappointing "Galacticos" project, returns for a second season at Kiryat Shalom.
Hapoel Tel Aviv
The Reds will have to manage without longtime captain Shimon Gershon, who now plays for archrival Betar. Dror Kashtan has taken over the national team, while former Panathinaikos coach Yitzhak Schum has taken over the reins.
Hapoel Tel Aviv will continue to build upon the young trio of Baruch Dego, Gil Vermut and Elyaniv Barda. Veteran Yossi Abuksis has decided to postpone his retirement and will continue to anchor the midfield.
The team has also brought back former players Salim Toema and Kfir Udi. Once nicknamed "Kashtan Babies," both were key parts of the team that won the domestic double in the 1999/2000 season.
Hapoel Petah Tikva
Hapoel Petah Tikva continues to be the most turbulent and unstable club in the league. Blues' owner Ronen Elad has called it quits after just one season at the helm and the team has been sold to Tzion Dalal.
The team has let its primary assets slip away in the offseason. Yossi Shivkhon, Manor Hassan, Toto Tamuz, Erez Eliav and Omer Buksenboim were released, making the team one of the top candidates for relegation.
New coach Eyal Lachman has snapped up Bnei Sakhnin talent Ahmed Kasum and Yaniv Luzon from Maccabi Herzliya, but the squad is still inexperienced, with the only veterans being fan favorite Motti Kakoon and goalkeeper Rafi Cohen.
Maccabi Petah Tikva
The "Luzons" have come up with a season budget estimated to be around NIS 15 million, easily the highest in club history. Despite the early exit in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Cup, Petah Tikva looks more than ready for the domestic season.
Nigerian marksman Patrick Suffo signed a new contract and will pair up with local star Omer Golan to form one of the most formidable attacks in the Premier League. Left winger Ofir Azu has also joined the club after a disappointing season with Betar Jerusalem.
The team's nucleus has been kept intact over the summer. Ohad Cohen, Murad Magomedov, Soli Tzemah and Rubel Sarsour are all locked up with long term contracts and will return for another season under 31-year old coach Guy Luzon.
The club from the "City of Diamonds" has gone through a stunning transformation since German-Jewish millionaire Daniel Jammer took over at the end of last season. Manager Eyal Berkovic resigned from his position just two months after being appointed, giving new coach Eli Guttman total control over the management of the organization.
Dedi Ben-Dayan, Mazua Ensombo, Jeff Totuana, Liran Strauber and Adrian Pito are just a few of the names to have come aboard in the last few months. The yellows are also expected to showcase young talents such as Shai Biruk and Itai Shekhter, who are coming off lackluster seasons with Maccabi Haifa and Upper Nazareth, respectively.
Barring any setbacks, Netanya is expected to be among the l e a g u e e l i t e t h a n k s
to its owner's deep pockets and a squad with a rich blend of veterans and youngsters. "The Box" will definitely be a big challenge for all visiting teams this season.
A quiet summer has been reported in Ashdod with the local team doing very little to reenforce its ranks ahead of the upcoming season.
The main attraction will still be veteran goal-machine Shai Holtzman, who was the league's top goalscorer last season with 18 nettings. Playmaker David Revivo has decided to stay, despite transfer rumors linking him to Maccabi Haifa in the offseason.
The only meaningful signing by Yossi Mizrahi has been midfielder Idan Malachi. The defensive midfielder was not promised playing time at his former club, Betar Jerusalem,
and decided to leave for the southern port city.
Hapoel Kfar Saba
Eli Ohana's side produced one of the most memorable comebacks in Premier League history, avoiding relegation in the final game of last season. The team has made some interesting signings over the summer, making no secret of its willingness to rise in stature.
Brazilian striker Jose Duarte and right winger Guillermo Israilevich have been added to bolster the attack, which should help improve teenage sensation Samuel Yeboah's output upfront.
Ghanaian Emmanuel Pappoe has drawn interest from various European clubs, but agreed to stay in Israel. The fullback, who also played in this summer's World Cup in Germany, will be assigned the job of anchoring the defense alongside veteran Ofer Talker, who played for Maccabi Netanya last season.
Bnei Yehuda made club history last year by qualifying for European competition, and coach Nitzan Shirazi is be eager to repeat the feat.
Most of last season's squad has been preserved as almost no changes were made. Asi Baldut, Eli Abarbanel and Eli Biton are expected to handle the midfield assignments, while temperamental playmaker Reuven Oved will continue to navigate the team's attacks.
Promising striker Moshe Biton was sold to Maccabi Tel Aviv during the offseason, but the club has addressed the situation by signing former Betar Jerusalem forward Lior Asulin.
Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan
After former Betar legend Uri Malmillian led Ramat Gan back to the top flight last season, he spent the summer trying to upgrade his squad.
Former Kfar Saba midfielder Avi Tikva, forward Erez Eliav and striker Shlomi Edri are some of the proven Premier League players who will try and establish continuity at the club.
The team is tipped to battle relegation this season, but its cozy stadium could be vital in the struggle to ensure another season in the Premier League.
Former Maccabi Netanya coach Reuven Atar will have his work cut out with the promoted club, which made few changes ahead of the Premier League season.
Papi Kimoto was inked to a contract soon after Atar replaced Freddy David.
Herzliya is also reportedly interested in Haifa reserve midfielder Lior Rafaelov, who is desperately needed to improve the team's chances to avoid relegation.