Stingy yellow-and-blue leading the pack

Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba putting up a fight • Beitar Jerusalem hanging on in 4th.

DEFENDING CHAMPION Maccabi Tel Aviv has not lost a beat, sitting atop the Israel Premier League standings a quarter of the way throught the season (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
DEFENDING CHAMPION Maccabi Tel Aviv has not lost a beat, sitting atop the Israel Premier League standings a quarter of the way throught the season
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
As the Israel national team prepares to face Poland in a Euro 2020 qualifying match on Saturday night at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem and the Israeli league goes on a break for a number of weeks as the various stadiums throughout the league winterize their pitches, let’s take a look back at how the first quarter of the season played out around the country.
Maccabi Tel Aviv leads the standings, ahead of Maccabi Haifa by just three points. The yellow-and-blue is undefeated and has won eight games while drawing twice, but the big story is the fact that it has yet to give up a goal this campaign.
Coach Vladimir Ivic has been visibly frustrated at times with his side’s attack, and rightfully so, but from a defensive standpoint Maccabi, behind Brazilian-born Israeli Daniel Tenenbaum, has been rock solid.
Sure, the defenders have played an immense role in keeping the chances on goal very, very limited, but the shot-stopper deserves all the credit for recording clean sheet after clean sheet. Over the summer Maccabi brought in Greek ’keeper Andreas Gianniotis to replace Predrag Rajkovic, who was sold to French outfit Stade de Reims, and anointed him the first-choice ’keeper.
However, his less than stellar play in Champions League and Europa League qualifying saw Mitch Goldhar’s squad bounced from continental competition, which was followed up by an injury putting Gianniotis on the shelf and giving Tenenbaum a chance to shine – which of course he has done, grabbing the opportunity with both hands.
As for the defense, Eitan Tibi has been reborn in a central defender role, playing arguably his best soccer in a number of years after being in and out of the doghouse the past couple of seasons. Alongside Tibi is Jair Amador, Enric Saborit and Andre Geraldes with Dan Glezer as the defensive midfielder, all of whom have total control as they continuously begin the attack out of the back.
Maccabi Haifa has had a good run as well, having just lost once (to Maccabi Tel Aviv) as Marko Balbul’s crew is looking more dangerous by the week.
New recruit Tjaron Chery has been stellar as he leads the league in assists, with four, while also topping the attempts on goal list, with 31. Due to the Dutch attacking midfielder’s fine play he has elevated the players around him, with striker Nikita Rukavytsya scoring six goals to lead the league along with Ben Sahar and Nigel Hasselbaink, both of Hapoel Beersheba.
In addition, Dolev Haziza has become a key player for the Greens with four goals and is continuously dangerous on the attack, making Haifa a team to watch going forward in Israeli league action.
Hapoel Beersheba sits in third place, three points behind Haifa, and although the Southerners have played with flashes of their old selves when the club won three championships in a row, Barak Bachar’s side is still not there yet.
Sure, Sahar and Hasselbaink have been scoring oodles of goals, but the defense has been suspect on numerous occasions as ’keeper Ernestas Setkus has been shaky so far in goal for Beersheba.
It’s clear that owner Alona Barkat will need to make some moves during the winter transfer window to freshen up the team, and there is no question that it is still a work in progress and not at the level of Maccabi Tel Aviv and perhaps not Haifa as well.
Rounding out the top four teams is Beitar Jerusalem. The yellow-and-black has been consistently inconsistent so far this season and failed in its biggest test of the campaign when it fell to Maccabi Haifa at Sammy Ofer Stadium 3-1 earlier this week.
Roni Levy’s team is clearly flawed and while Beitar has a number of quality players and speed merchants, it is desperately in need of a true No. 9 striker. A goal-scorer who can get the ball in the box and slam it home on a consistent basis is something that Levy knows he is missing, admitting exactly that following the Haifa game.
Ali Muhamed, Levi Garcia, Freddy Plumain and Gadi Kinda are all players who can impact the game, but they aren’t enough to move Jerusalem into the top three, leaving it with the realistic goal of securing a European qualifying place.
Of course that will also depend on the squads who are sitting in spots five through nine – Hapoel Hadera, Hapoel Haifa, Bnei Yehuda, Ashdod SC and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Hadera and Ashdod have been playing better than advertised over the first quarter of the season while Hapoel Haifa, Bnei Yehuda and Hapoel Tel Aviv have been disappointing. As the year continue, Haim Silvas and his Haifa side along with Yossi Abuksis’s Bnei Yehuda will look to overtake Beiter should the capital city squad falter.
The bottom five teams will most likely battle it out as they all look like prime relegation candidates. Hapoel Kfar Saba, Maccabi Netanya, Ironi Kiryat Shmona, Ness Ziona and Hapoel Ra’anana haven’t impressed, with Netanya being the biggest disappointment of the lot.
Slobodan Drapic and Shay Barda’s diamond city side has been unimpressive to say the least and has struggled mightily so far. The saving grace for Netanya is that it won its last game, but the 1-0 victory was against last place Ra’anana.
Netanya has plenty of work to do, but could very well surprise some by potentially having just enough quality to threaten for a European spot.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]