Can Hapoel build a dynasty? Or will the Reds be dethroned?

Some new faces join a familiar cast of characters as the 62nd season of Israeli soccer kicks off this weekend.

Footie (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
After a nail biting-finish to last season, the Israeli Premier League makes its much-anticipated return this weekend.
Reigning champion Hapoel Tel Aviv, heavy-spending Maccabi Tel Aviv and the always-dangerous Maccabi Haifa are the favorites to claim the title, with Uri Malmilian’s Betar Jerusalem also hoping to mount a surprise challenge.
Last season’s new format – in which after 30 matches the league is split into three sections and the teams have their point totals halved – continues for another year, all but ensuring another tight title race and an exciting fight against relegation.
Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai takes a look at the 16 teams which will be battling it out over the coming nine months.
Eli Gutman guided Hapoel to its first championship in 10 years last season, and his sights are now set on claiming back-toback titles for the first time in club history.
Hapoel had an excellent summer after it managed to hold on to the core of its triumphant squad, while making three significant additions. The signings of Yossi Shivhon and Bevan Fransman give Gutman more options in the midfield and defense, but the most important supplement of the summer is undoubtedly Ben Sahar. The former Chelsea and Espanyol striker gives Tel Aviv an extra goal-threat it lacked last season, and he is surely the preseason favorite to end the campaign as the league’s top scorer.
Thanks to their success in Europe, the Reds already know they will need to compete on the continental and local stages simultaneously, but Hapoel showed it could handle a heavy load last season, and will be the team to beat yet again over the coming campaign.
Player to watch out for: Victor Merey. The 21-year-old striker scored just two goals last season, but with Maharan Lala to miss at least the next six months due to injury, Merey will get his chance to prove his worth as a backup to Itai Shechter and Ben Sahar.
Last season: 1st place (25 wins – 9 draws – 1 loss), 49 points.
Titles: Championships – 8 (1956/57, 1965/66, 1968/69, 1980/81, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1999/00, 2009/10). State Cups – 8 (1960, 1972, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2010).
Best case: A second-straight league title, this time clinched long before stoppage time of the final match of the season.
Worst case: Finishes one place below Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It will take years for Haifa players to forget about the heartbreaking ending to last season, but a league title this time around will certainly help. However, Elisha Levy’s team has taken a step back since last season, with four key starters leaving during the summer.
Haifa’s defense has got a new look after the departures of Dekel Keinan (Blackpool) and Jorge Teixeira (FC Zurich), with Biram Kiyal (Celtic) and Shlomi Arbeitman (K.A.A.Gent) leaving big shoes to fill in the midfield and attack, respectively.
The additions of Argentinian Ignacio Canuto and Arik Benado in defense and of Portugal’s Adrian Silva and Idan Vered in midfield allow Haifa to remain a challenger, but the team will depend more than ever of its homegrown talent. Veteran Yaniv Katan remains the vocal point in attack, with midfielders Lior Rafaelov, Eyal Golasa and Mohammad Ghadir to all play crucial roles if Haifa is to contend for the title once more.
Player to watch out for: Adrian Silva. After years on the bench at Sporting Lisbon, the 21-year-old Portuguese midfielder will get a chance to prove his worth at Haifa.
Last season: 2nd place (28–3– 4), 49 points.
Titles: Championships – 11 (1983/84, 1984/85, 1988/89, 1990/91, 1993/94, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09). State Cups – 5 (1962, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998).
Best case: Last season’s misery becomes a distant memory after Haifa pips Hapoel Tel Aviv to the title.
Worst case: The Greens fail to overcome the departure of key players, and never even puts up a true challenge.
Maccabi has signed no less than 11 new players in the hope of catching up with arch-rival Hapoel and winning the championship for just the second time in 15 years.
Club owner Mitch Goldhar abandoned the frugal approach that characterized his first season at Maccabi, and with a budget of around NIS 100 million, will be expecting big things from the team.
New coach Yossi Mizrahi and manager Avi Nimni seem to be getting along and the team has shown some encouraging signs, knocking out Olympiacos in the Europa League qualifiers. However, even with a scary strike force of Roberto Colautti and Barak Itzhaki, there are sure to be some teething problems at Kiryat Shalom, and patience will be vital to Maccabi’s hopes of challenging for the title.
Player to watch out for: Dor Malul. It won’t be easy for the 21-year-old midfielder to get into a star-studded lineup, but when he does get his chance, he will show why he is one the most promising players to come through the Maccabi youth department in recent seasons.
Last season: 3rd place (17–9–9), 34 points.
Titles: Championships – 14 (1949/50, 1951/52, 1953/54, 1955/56, 1957/58, 1967/68, 1969/70, 1971/72, 1976/77, 1978/79, 1991/92, 1994/95, 1995/96, 2002/03). State Cups – 16 (1954, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2002, 2005).
Best case: Mizrahi and Nimni make 11 new players gel into a team and Maccabi snatches the title from Hapoel’s grasp.
Worst case: Mizrahi and Nimni don’t even make it together to 2011 and Maccabi finishes well in the wake of Hapoel.
The signing of former Israel coach Dror Kashtan in place of Guy Luzon shows Bnei Yehuda is aiming high, but the humbling Europa League exit at the hands of Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers proved that there is still plenty of work to be done.
Top-scorer Eliran Atar left for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and was replaced by the aging Ilya Yavruyan. New signing Shalev Menashe will provide goals from the midfield, but the team’s fate will be decided by Kashtan’s work with the youngsters. If Israel’s most decorated coach can get the likes of Dean Mori, Liroy Zhairi and Hasan Abu Zaid to continue to progress, Bnei Yehuda will make the top-six playoffs once more. If he fails, it promises to be a disappointing season for the Hatikva neighborhood faithful.
Player to watch out for: Liroy Zhairi. The 21-year-old midfielder has consistently improved in recent seasons and is ready to make his big breakthrough.
Last season: 4th place (14–11–10), 31 points.
Titles: Championships – 1 (1989/90). State Cups – 2 (1968, 1981).
Best case: Kashtan proves he still has what it takes and Bnei Yehuda qualifies for European competition for a third-straight season.
Worst case: Kashtan follows up his fiasco with the national team with another failure and Bnei Yehuda settles for a place in the middle of the standings.
It was all doom and gloom for Betar at the end of last season, but chairman Itzik Kornfein worked his magic once more and new coach Uri Malmilian is even speaking of mounting a challenge for the title. Barak Itzhaki and Idan Vered may have left, but Dario Fernandez and Cristian Alvarez are back on the squad, and with the likes of Aviram Bruchian, Amit Ben- Shushan and Idan Tal all still around, Betar should be this season’s black horse.
After 15 years of coaching, Betar legend Malmilian has finally got his chance at a big club – don’t be surprised if he makes the most of it.
Player to watch out for: Hen Azriel. The talent of this 22-year-old is no secret, but this season he should finally get his chance to realize his potential.
Last season: 5th place (14–7–14), 26 points.
Titles: Championships – 6 (1986/87, 1992/93, 1996/97, 1997/98, 2006/07, 2007/08). State Cups – 7 (1976, 1979, 1985, 1986, 1989, 2008, 2009).
Best case: Betar remains in the hunt for the title until the final weeks of the season and returns to Europe.
Worst case: Betar settles for a top-six finish in an untypically quiet season at Teddy Stadium.
John Gregory replaced Yossi Mizrahi at the helm, and with an almost identical squad to last season, will be aiming to guide the team to a top-six finish for a second straight year.
Owner Jacky Ben-Zaken has invested heavily in the team’s youth academy after becoming disillusioned with seeing expensive imports underperform, and Gregory will be expected to give the club’s youngsters plenty of opportunities to prove their worth. Ashdod may not challenge for the title this season, but it is sure to play one of the most entertaining brands of soccer in the league.
Player to watch out for: Nir Biton. The 18-year-old midfielder grew up in the Ashdod youth department, and after breaking into the team last season, will be looking to take another significant step forward.
Last season: 6th place (11–10–14), 22 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best case: Gregory unearths more talent in the youth department and Ashdod makes the top-six playoffs once again.
Worst case: Gregory’s touchline antics are the most entertaining part of Ashdod’s matches as the side slips into the mid-table playoffs.
The fact that Sakhnin has already gone through two coaches before the season has even begun can’t be a good sign. Coach Haim Levy replaced Yuval Naim after the latter was sacked last week, and will be more than happy to settle for a repeat of last season’s mid-table finish.
Foreigners Yeye Paty and Nastja Ceh give Sakhnin a good foundation in defense and midfield, respectively, but if the last couple of months are anything to go by, it will be a tumultuous season for the Premier League’s only Arab team.
Player to watch out for: Hamad Ganayem. It is only a matter of time until the 23-year-old becomes the anchor of the Sakhnin midfield.
Last season: 7th place (13–8–12), 27 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 1 (2004).
Best case: Sakhnin steers clear of the battle against relegation and happily settles for a mid-table finish.
Worst case: Sakhnin gets off to a poor start and only barely maintains its Premier League status.
After last season’s disappointment, the Luzons are expecting at least a top-six finish this time around. Freddy David took charge of the team three months into last season and will be looking to build on the side’s impressive ending to the campaign. Petah Tikva has a solid and balanced squad once more, and despite the fact that qualification for continental competition will likely escape it yet again, it will put up a fight against each of its opponents.
Player to watch out for: Dani Freda. If the 23-year-old continues his progress of recent seasons it will not be long before he finds himself playing for one of the country’s big teams.
Last season: 8th place (10–11–12), 24 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 1 (1952).
Best case: David is rewarded with a contract extension after leading the team to the top-six playoffs.
Worst case: David becomes the seventh coach in less than four years to leave the club after another disappointing start to a season.
After four years in Cyprus, Nir Klinger is back coaching in the Israeli Premier League.
He’s got his work cut out for him at Hapoel Beersheba, though.
The southerners finished in ninth place after returning to the top flight last season, but the side’s unrealistic fans expected much more, hence Guy Azuri’s resignation after he was driven off the road by some of the club’s supporters. However, Klinger is not easily scared, and with a squad which includes Williams Suarez, Maor Melikson and Lior Asulin, Beersheba could cause real damage this season.
Player to watch out for: Ofir Davidazde. The 19-year-old has all the attributes to become Israel’s future left-back.
Last season: 9th place (11–10–12), 23 points.
Titles: Championships – 2 (1974/75, 1975/76). State Cups – 1 (1997).
Best case: Klinger is embraced by the local supporters after Beersheba claims victories over the big four.
Worst case: Klinger is just another name on the ever-growing list of coaches to be chased out of town.
The Daniel Jammer era seems like a distant memory as Netanya currently holds one of the lowest budgets in the league. At least Reuven Atar remains at the helm, giving the fans some hope that he will once more be able to create something out of nothing.
Player to watch out for: Firas Mugrabi. Many youngsters will be getting a chance at Natanya this season, and this 19-year-old striker will have as good an opportunity as any to make his breakthrough.
Last season: 10th place (10–9–14), 21 points.
Titles: Championships – 5 (1970/71, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1982/83). State Cups – 1 (1978).
Best case: Netanya is nowhere near the bottom, but also well off the top, wallowing in mediocrity.
Worst case: Even Atar can’t help Netanya from a long season, capped by plunging into the relegation playoffs.
Nitzan Shirazi inherits an average squad from Shlomi Dora, and relegation to the National League is a distinct possibility for Haifa’s other soccer team.
With few resources at his disposal, Shirazi will have to make due with the products of the club’s youth system, and all indications point to a very long season for the reds of Haifa.
Player to watch out for: Ran Abukarat. The 21-year-old was a regular starter for the team last season and should benefit from that experience this term.
Last season: 11th place (10–9–16), 23 points.
Titles: Championships – 1: (1998\99). State Cups – 3 (1963, 1966, 1974).
Best case: Haifa improves on last season’s finish by one place, enjoying the seclusion of the mid-table playoffs.
Worst case: Shirazi is back commentating on television as Haifa drops back down to the National League.
After struggling for 32 years to return to the Premier League, Acre fought for its top-flight life until the very end of last season and will likely find itself in the same situation once more. Eli Cohen replaces Yaron Hochenboim as coach, and with the team still hosting its matches at Upper- Nazareth as it has no suitable stadium in the city, the Acre faithful would be wise to brace themselves for another relegation battle.
Player to watch out for: Arafat Djako. The 21-year-old striker showed some promising signs at Bnei Sakhnin last season and has the platform to succeed in Acre.
Last season: 12th place (7–14–14), 23 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best case: Acre once more avoids relegation at the last moment.
Worst case: After two years in the Premier League, it is time for Acre to return to the Israeli soccer wilderness.
The dreams of seeing the club return to its former glory of the 1950s and ’60s will have to wait at least one more season, as Petah Tikva is likely to struggle yet again in the coming campaign. Eli Mahpud did well to keep the team in the league last season. Realistically, that is all that can be expected from him in 2010/2011.
Player to watch out for: Israel Zaguri. The 20-year-old midfielder struggled to break into the Maccabi Haifa first team, but will have every opportunity to show why he is spoken of so highly after being loaned out to Petah Tikva.
Last season: 13th place (8–14–13), 23 points.
Titles: Championships – 6: (1954\55, 1958\59, 1959\60, 1960\61, 1961\62, 1962\63). State Cups – 2 (1957, 1992).
Best case: Petah Tikva avoids a bottom six finish and secures another season of Premier League soccer long before the end of the season.
Worst case: Mahpud fails to repeat last season’s trick and Petah Tikva is back in the National League after three years away.
Ramat Gan was always going to face an uphill battle to maintain its top-flight status, and after being deducted seven points on Wednesday for last season’s financial irregularities, its task was made all the more difficult.
Ramat Gan avoided relegation by the skin of its teeth last season, edging Hapoel Kfar Saba of the National League in a playoff, a scenario new coach Shlomi Dora would be happy to settle for in nine months time as well.
Player to watch out for: Idan Srur. No one doubts the talent of this 23-year-old midfielder, but he is running out of time to prove himself.
Last season: 14th place (9–11–15), 22 points.
Titles: Championships – 1 (1963/64). State Cups – 1 (2003).
Best case: Ramat Gan surprises everyone and avoids relegation in the last week of the season.
Worst case: It takes Ramat Gan two months to even erase its seven point deduction and the club never breaks out of the bottom two.
Kiryat Shmona needed just one try to return to the Premier League, leading the National League standings throughout last season. Ran Ben-Shimon remains in charge of team affairs and has held on to the core of his squad from last season.
After finishing third in its first-ever season in the top flight in 2007/08 and suffering relegation in the subsequent campaign, Kiryat Shmona should find its true place in the league this season – in the middle of the table.
Player to watch out for: Barak Badash. The 27-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic look-alike has plenty of potential and it’s about time he realizes it.
Last season (National League): 1st place (21–9–5), 41 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best case: Kiryat Shmona gets off to a good start and is never in any danger of being relegated.
Worst case: The northerners get caught up in the relegation playoffs and fight for their life until the final week of the season.
Guy Azuri replaces Uri Malmilian as coach and has got an almost impossible task on his hands. This season will only be Ashkelon’s second of Premier League soccer, and no one will be surprised if it ends just like the first one – with relegation.
Player to watch out for: Stephen Ahorlu.
 Israel has become a hotbed for African goalkeepers in recent seasons, and the 21- year-old Ghanaian could be the next big name to arise.
Last season (National League): 2nd place (15–11–9), 34 points.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best case: Ramat Gan’s seven-point deduction means Ashkelon at least avoids finishing at rock-bottom.
Worst case: Even Ramat Gan’s deduction can’t keep Ashkelon from ending the season in last place.