Some new coaches, but same old contenders

Premier League finally ready to kick off after multiple war-related postponements • Tight title race expected

Only a Premier League title will be considered a success for new Maccabi Haifa coach Aleksandar Stanojevic (left), new Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pako Ayestaran (center) and Hapoel Beersheba coach Elisha Levy (right). (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI,ASAF KLIGER)
Only a Premier League title will be considered a success for new Maccabi Haifa coach Aleksandar Stanojevic (left), new Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pako Ayestaran (center) and Hapoel Beersheba coach Elisha Levy (right).
 It has been more than a decade since the Premier League last experienced a three-horse title race.
Only two points separated Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv at the end of the 2002/03 campaign, with the yellow-and-blue ultimately edging the Greens for the title on goal difference.
Over recent seasons there have been no more than two teams at best contesting for the championship, with many campaigns being dominated by a single side.
Hapoel Beersheba was Maccabi Tel Aviv’s only rival for the title last season, but the yellow-and-blue ended up cruising to the finish line, opening an eight-point gap with eight matches to play and never looking back following a win over Beersheba.
However, a tighter and more intriguing battle for the title is expected in the upcoming season, which finally gets underway on Saturday after twice being postponed due to the security situation.
Maccabi and Beersheba will both settle for nothing less than first place, with Maccabi Haifa also targeting the summit, hoping to claim a first championship since 2010/11.
The Greens dominated the local Premier League in the the first decade of the 21st century, winning seven championships over 11 years, including three in a row at one stage (2004- 06).
Haifa is hoping to deny Maccabi Tel Aviv from joining it as the only teams in the past 50 years to claim three consecutive titles.
The early signs are encouraging, with everything seemingly in place for the club to once more challenge for the championship after finishing in a bitterly disappointing fifth place last season, a massive 31 points behind the yellow-and-blue.
It was the second time in three years that the Greens could only manage fifth position, with the team finishing in second place in 2012/13 but nevertheless never coming close to competing for the title.
The last time Haifa went three consecutive years without lifting the championship shield, not to mention even battle for it, was in the 1990’s.
However, Haifa made its intentions clear this summer by bringing back arguably Israel’s greatest ever player, Yossi Benayoun, who will miss the first three weeks of the season due to a knee injury.
Nevertheless, the 34-year-old’s addition has helped the club sell a local record of over 15,000 season tickets, meaning the 30,000 seats at the new Sammy Ofer Stadium are expected be filled on numerous occasions, including the team’s season opener against Bnei Sakhnin on Monday.
Besides Benayoun, Haifa has also signed Cameroonian striker Mohammadou Idrissou and Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, who have both made a good early impression.
Haifa owner Jacob Shachar followed in the footsteps of Maccabi Tel Aviv by bringing in a foreign coach to guide the side, signing Serbian Aleksandar Stanojevic.
The Greens also added Spaniard Michel to help sure up their midfield, and despite Stanojevic’s pleas for patience, he too recognizes the level of expectation.
Much like last season, Beersheba is doing its best to downplay its title aspirations.
However, after holding on to the core of last season’s successful squad and bringing back from Europe Israel internationals Maor Melikson and Shlomi Arbeitman, Beersheba will have a hard time convincing its fans it hasn’t got winning a first championship since 1976 on its mind.
Beersheba also added Nigerian midfielder John Ogu to its squad earlier this week and has a coach who knows what it takes to win a championship, with Elisha Levy, who is entering his third season at the club, previously guiding Maccabi Haifa to two league titles.
Nevertheless, the reigning champion from Tel Aviv remains the favorite for the title, despite having to replace its coach less than three weeks before the start of the campaign.
Oscar Garcia shockingly departed the club at the end of August, claiming that the security situation had disrupted his job to an extent that he no longer felt he could achieve success with Maccabi.
Fellow Spaniard Pako Ayestaran was brought in to replace him and Maccabi remains the team to beat after holding on to almost all of last season’s triumphant squad, while also adding Eden Ben-Basat and Nosa Igiebor.
“We are capable of achieving all our targets this year,” Pako said this week.
“But it is down to the players and myself to make sure the team plays to its full potential and accomplishes its goals.”