(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
After a long summer break the Israeli Premier League returns this weekend. Betar Jerusalem, the team which won the championship for the first time in nine years last season, will be hoping to come out on top again. But challengers including Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa will be going all out to steal the crown away from the capital. Allon Sinai takes a look at each of the 12 teams battling for contention in 2007/08.
An early European exit at the hands of FC Copenhagen earlier this month is the best thing that could have happened to Betar Jerusalem as far as its league campaign is concerned. No Israeli team has yet to master the art of playing two matches a week and it is unlikely Betar would have become the first to do so. Betar is a huge favorite to retain its title this season.
New coach Itzhak Schum is a veteran of the Israeli league, but surprisingly has yet to win a championship as a coach.
The signing of Idan Tal will undoubtedly shore up Betar's midfield and allow Barak Itzhaki and Michael Zandberg to attack without any restraints. New Brazilian striker Romulo has yet to show why Betar invested a total NIS 5 million to bring him to the team and will have to score regularly to justify his salary.
Player to watch out for: Cristian Alvarez. The 27-year-old right-back was rock solid in both of Betar's Champions League qualifiers and was one of the side's better players on the pitch. The former Chile international and River Plate defender can attack as impressively as he can defend and you can expect many of the team's goals this season to come from his right flank.
Last season: 1st place (19 wins - 10 draws - 4 losses), 67 points.
Best case: A second straight league title by a double digit margin.
Worst case: The team leads the standings all season long only to eventually be pipped to the title by arch-rival Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Netanya surprised everyone last season, especially itself, with its second place finish. It will, however, be far tougher for the team to finish above three of the big four once again this term. Netanya will be starting its campaign with an almost identical lineup to the one that ended last season.
The club failed to improve its squad during the offseason and its team may be even weaker after solid defensive midfielder Mazua Ensombo left for Hapoel Tel Aviv. New foreigner Stanislav Angelovic, who joined from Slovak club FC Senec, is an unknown commodity.
Former Israel international Klemi Saban, who returned to his hometown club from Steaua Bucharest, will replace Ori Uzan at right-back and will improve the already excellent Netanya defense that conceded just 25 goals last season, second only to Betar.
Player to watch out for: Itai Shechter. The 20-year-old was crucial to Netanya's success last season, scoring seven goals in 30 league matches. The forward will look to continue his improvement this season and will likely play an even bigger role in the Maccabi attack this year.
Last season: 2nd place (15 - 12 - 6), 57 points.
Best case: A third place finish books the team's place in the UEFA Cup for a second straight year.
Worst case: Finishes sandwiched between Ashdod and Kfar Saba, a long way from the top and bottom of the standings.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
Maccabi was one of the surprise packages in the Premier League last season, finishing in third position with a squad which was mediocre at best. Coach Eli Cohen was hailed as the struggling club's savior. The lack of expectations from the team at the start of the season was the best thing that could have happened to Cohen, who won over fans with every win.
This season, however, Tel Aviv is being mentioned as a championship contender, meaning Cohen will need to come up with the goods right from the start. Last season's Premier League top scorer Yaniv Azran will give the team the fire power it so desperately lacked last season.
Youngsters Ori Shitrit and Shiran Yeini will look to continue their improvement in the coming months, but veteran captain Avi Nimni, who will be playing at Maccabi for an 18th and possibly last season, will once again be the key to any success.
Player to watch out for: Rudy Haddad. The 22-year-old French midfielder is not only an excellent player, but is also Jewish, which means he can play as an Israeli in the Maccabi lineup. Haddad came up through the youth system at Paris Saint Germain, but spent last season on loan at Ligue 1 club Valenciennes FC and helped the team avoid relegation from the top division.
Last season: 3rd place (15 - 11 - 7), 54 points.
Best case: Nimni retires as a champion.
Worst case: The high expectations prove to be unfounded as Maccabi fails to even book a place in the UEFA Cup.
Hapoel Tel Aviv
Hapoel is planning a major assault on the title this season, adding no less than seven notable players to its squad. The club has also brought in coach Guy Luzon from Maccabi Petah Tikva, with the hope that he will be the man to guide the side to its first championship in eight years. Luzon has only previously coached at Petah Tikva, which is owned by his extended family. The coach worked in a practically pressure free environment at Petah Tikva, but is facing an entirely different situation at his new job. The club's owners have invested heavily to make sure Luzon got every player he wanted and will not settle for second place. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and striker Lior Asulin were brought in from Bnei Yehuda and will likely start for the team in most matches. Hapoel will, however, need to manage without Salim Toamah, Elyaniv Barda and Gili Vermut, who all left the team for Belgian clubs. The club also signed three Brazilians: defender Gabriel dos Santos, midfielder Abedi and striker Fabio Junior. All three have impressive resumes for players in the Israeli league, but their ability to adapt to their new surroundings will likely be the key to Hapoel's success this season.
Player to watch out for: Reuven Oved. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder is unrivaled among Israelis in the Premier League in the talent department, but his character has let him down time and again. Oved only showed glimpses of his talent at Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bnei Yehuda in previous seasons and has yet to fulfill most of his potential. Should Luzon manage to get Oved to play even at 90 percent of his promise, Hapoel fans are in for a treat
Last season: 3rd place (15 - 9 - 9), 54 points.
Best case: Champion for the first time since 2000.
Worst case: Finish third behind arch-rivals Betar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
After three straight championships, last season's stuttering league campaign came as a shock to many Haifa fans. The team was nowhere near its crushing best from previous seasons, finishing in fifth position and a massive 16 points behind Betar. Despite a successful UEFA Cup campaign that saw the team reach the round of 16 of the competition, the failure to secure any piece of local silverware has placed huge pressure on the shoulders of coach Roni Levy ahead of the coming season. Another trophy-less season will not be tolerated by club president Jacob Shahar, who has gotten used to seeing his team at the top of the table or at the very least pushing for a championship until the final weeks of the season.
Argentinian defender Diego Crosa, who joined from Racing Club, and Polish midfielder Lukatz Surma, who signed from Legia Warsaw, are both solid players, but nothing more. Giovanni Rosso will deepen Maccabi's squad slightly, but all in all Levy will have to manage once again with his reliable veterans and up-and-coming youngsters.
Player to watch out for: Lior Rafaelov. The 22-year-old has shown signs in the preseason that he is finally ready to make his breakthrough this year. The left-footed midfielder scored just one goal in 26 league appearances last season, but even in a disappointing campaign showed the glimpses of the huge potential that is still waiting to be fulfilled.
Last season: 5th place (14 - 9 - 10), 51 points.
Best case: Levy works his magic and the title returns to Haifa for a fourth time in five seasons.
Worst case: No titles, means no job for Levy, who is forced to leave Haifa after a second straight season outside the top three.
Maccabi Petah Tikva
Maccabi has consistently finished in the top half of the table in recent season and there's no reason why it shouldn't do so once again this year. The team has retained the majority of its lineup and has added several players to its already deep squad. Felix Obuka and Nenad Savic join a midfield that includes the excellent Blessing Kaku.
Yossi Mizrahi, who guided Betar to the championship last season, returns to the club he coached for two seasons between 1999 and 2001. The secret to Petah Tikva's success is the core of Israeli players that have played for the team for years. Goalkeeper Ohad Cohen, naturalized defender Morad Megamadov and striker Omer Golan have performed consistently for the club for many years and will play a key role in the side's achievements once more this season.
Player to watch out for: Ohad Kadusi. The 21-year-old forward returns from loan at Bnei Sakhnin, which he helped to promotion to the Premier League last season. Kadusi was the National League's top scorer last season.
Last season: 6th place (14 - 8 - 11), 50 points.
Best case: Mizrahi guides a team to European competition for a second straight season.
Worst case: Petah Tikva finishes in the second half of the table, nowhere near European qualification.
Ashdod begins the 2007/08 season with little expectation. The team should easily avoid relegation and is unlikely to qualify for European competition. Coach Alon Hazan, who was appointed to the position after Yossi Mizrahi left for Betar at the start of last season, guided the side to an excellent first half to the season. The team, however, began to struggle as the season progressed. Captain Shai Holtzman will be as reliable as ever up front and can be counted on to contribute at least 15 goals throughout the season. Jean Jacques Gusso and David Revivo will give the team quality performances in the midfield week in and week out. New playmaker Andres Aimar, brother of Argentinian international Pablo Aimar, is expected to give team an extra creative touch.
Player to watch out for: Idan Shriki. The 25-year-old broke into the first team last season and formed a clinical scoring partnership with Azran and Holtzman. Azran's departure clears the stage for Shriki to shine brighter than ever.
Last season: 7th place (12 - 6 - 15), 42 points.
Best case: A mid-table finish keeps the management and fans happy at Ashdod.
Worst case: Ashdod only just survives an unexpected battle against relegation.
Hapoel Kfar Saba
It's never good news when the most recognizable name at the club is the coach. Eli Ohana begins his third season at Kfar Saba and will once again need to steer his side away from relegation. The departure of Brazilian striker Jose Duarte will be a bitter pill for Ohana to swallow, especially when considering that the team hasn't strengthened any other part of its lineup. Brazilians Douglas da Silva and Lira will anchor what is guaranteed to be one of the busiest defenses in the league. Guillermo Israilevich is one of the best playmakers in the league and will once again be at the center of the majority of Kfar Saba's offensive moves. He may, however, end up regretting his decision to stay at the club when he realizes how much Hapoel will struggle this season.
Player to watch out for: Ben Luz. The 29-year-old midfielder had one of the best seasons of his career last year. Nevertheless, Luz has struggled to play well consistently, something he will be keen to improve this season. Luz combines excellently with Israilevich and the two give Kfar Saba fans something to look forward too in what may otherwise be a very disappointing season.
Last season: 8th place (8 - 16 - 9), 40 points.
Best case: For a third straight season Ohana guides his team to survival.
Worst case: One word. Relegation.
After guiding Bnei Yehuda to another season in the Premier League coach Nitzan Shirazi decided to leave the club over the summer. However, one month into the offseason Bnei Yehuda was still without a coach and Shirazi realized that he will not find a job at a different Premier League club so he decided to return. New striker Jose Duarte gives the side the firepower it lacked last season, but the departures of Lior Asulin, Reuven Oved and keeper Vincent Enyeama could prove to be too costly. Dele Aiyenugba replaces his countryman in goal and Moshe Biton, who returned to the team from Maccabi Tel Aviv, will look to recover from his poor play throughout last season.
Player to watch out for: Ze'ev Haymovitch. The 24-year-old is slowly yet surely becoming one of the better defenders in the league. Haymovitch will be a key part of the Bnei Yehuda defense and will have learned from his experience with the relegated Hapoel Petah Tikva last season.
Last season: 9th place (7 - 14 - 12), 35 points.
Best case: Shirazi's men keep their distance from the bottom and avoid relegation.
Worst case: Shirazi leaves club at the end of the season for a second straight year. This time, however, he's fired after being relegated.
Coach Freddy David replaced Reuven Atar seven matches into the season and after making several changes led the team to a great escape. David also guided the club to its first ever trophy, winning the Toto Cup with a 2-1 victory over Hapoel Kfar Saba. Belgian goalkeeper Peiter Merlier has joined the team from Zulte Waregem. Said Makasi, who signed from Hapoel Petah Tikva, will replace the excellent Yannick Kamanon, who left for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Slovenian international Mitja Morec was brought in to strengthen the defense, which was the second worst in the league last season.
Player to watch out for: Maharan Radi. The 25-year-old midfielder has a superb right footed shot and scored some spectacular goals last season. Radi will be getting even more chances this year and his set-pieces could prove to be vital in Herzliya's success.
Last season: 10th place (9 - 7 - 17), 34 points.
Best case: Herzliya ends the season closer to a UEFA Cup berth than to the bottom two.
Worst case: Last season repeats itself, but this time without the happy ending.
Ironi Kiryat Shmona
Kiriyat Shmona was promoted to the Premier League for the first time in its history last season, claiming the National League championship. Just six years ago the team was still in the fourth Israeli division, but the support of businessman Izi Shiratzki helped the club to rise through the divisions. Former Israel international Ran Ben-Shimon guided the team to promotion last year and will be at the helm once again this season. Ben-Shimon brought in Premier League veterans Shavit Elimelech and Abbas Suan to help his inexperienced team avoid relegation.
Guy Tzarfati was one of the main reasons Kiryat Shmona was promoted and he will have to be at his very best once more this season if the team's to play in the top division for more than just one year.
Player to watch out for: Emanuel Omongoa. The 23-year-old Cameroonian was extremely impressive in Hapoel Ashkelon's State Cup run last season, which saw the team go all the way to the final. Omongoa has no top division experience, but as soon as he settles he will be a real threat against any team.
Last season: 1st place in National League (18 - 10 - 5), 64 points.
Best case: Ironi puts up a brave fight, but is nevertheless relegated in the final match of the season.
Worst case: A poor start to the season sees the team virtually relegated midway through its historic campaign.
After just one season in the National League Sakhnin is back in the Premier League. The team finished four points behind Kiryat Shmona last season. Former Hapoel Tel Aviv forward Ilya Yavroyan joined the side from Kiryat Shmona and together with fellow new signing Ahmed Kasoum will give the team a dangerous strike force. Sakhnin's biggest problem, however, is set to be in defense where it desperately lacks quality. The club's form at home at the Doha Stadium will be crucial to its survival and the team will need to collect the lion share of its points at Sakhnin to avoid the drop.
Player to watch out for: Maor Buzaglo. The 19-year-old is one of Israeli soccer's future stars. Buzaglo came through the Maccabi Haifa youth ranks, but after failing to secure a place in the first team squad last season, went on loan to Hapoel Petah Tikva.
Last season: 2nd place in National League (17 - 9 - 7), 60 points.
Best case: Coach Elisha Levy's experience in relegation battles help the team secure another season of premiership soccer.
Worst case: Sakhnin returns to the National League after just one season in the top flight.