Local Soccer: Is it time for a new Israeli champion?

Maccabi Netanya, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa are the three pretenders to Betar Jerusalem's title crown.

Hapoel Betar 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Betar 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Following a lengthy summer break, the Israeli Premier League returns this weekend, and it could be the most exciting campaign ever. Betar Jerusalem will want to win a third title in a row but Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Netanya and Maccabi Haifa will be snapping at Jerusalem's heels every step of the way. Sports Editor Jeremy Last takes a look at the teams which will be battling for results over the coming eight months. BETAR JERUSALEM After practically walking away with the Premier League title for the last two seasons, things won't be as easy for Betar Jerusalem this time around. There have been few additions to the squad, with supposedly star Uruguayan striker Sebastian Abreu, who arrived from Argentinian champs River Plate in July, yet to find his scoring touch in preseason. Argentinian midfielder Dario Fernandez, brought in by coach Itzhak Schum to replace Gal Alberman, has been far more impressive in the center of the park and could well prove a crucial element over the course of the season. In recent weeks the 5-0 Champions League qualifier defeat at Wisla Krakow has been hanging over the team like a bad smell and the players and coach will have to leave the European failures in the closet and focus on the future if they want to bring a third consecutive championship to Teddy. The punishments for last term's crowd trouble will carry over into this season meaning the yellow and black start off with a two-point deficit. Last season: 1st place (20 wins - 7 draws - 6 losses), 67 points. Titles: Championships - 6 (1986/87, 1992/93, 1996/97, 1997/98, 2006/07, 2007/08), State Cups - 6 (1979, 1985, 1986, 1989, 2008). Best case: The new king of Israel wipes its opponents away once again, winning another double. Worst case: The depression of European failure kicks in and the team finishes outside the top four. MACCABI NETANYA Just two years ago few could have imagined that German soccer legend Lothar Matthaus would be running team affairs at Netanya. The European-focused influence of millionaire owner Daniel Jammer has spread through Maccabi Netanya and the whole club is aiming straight for the top. Whether this can be achieved will depend on the performances of its biggest rivals as well as those of the team itself. Matthaus is still an unknown quantity in Israel but he will be sure to demand 100 percent from his playing staff. The former Hungarian national team coach has been clever not to rock the boat with many summer signings, so the strong defense and midfield will continue from last year. Ex-Israel international midfielder Baruch Dego has moved over from Hapoel Tel Aviv to provide some significant experience in the center of the field while Ghanain striker Okocha will be looking for the goals up front. Now in his third season since moving home from the MLS in America, 29-year-old defender Dedi Ben-Dayan has become the best left sided defender in Israel. Last season: 2nd place (16 wins - 10 draws - 7 losses), 58 points. Titles:Championships - 5 (1970/71, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1982/83), State Cups - 1 (1978) Best case: Matthaus inspires the Diamonds to their first title for 26 years. Worst case: The players fail to understand what the German coach wants from them and go on a losing run, ending outside the European places. IRONI KIRYAT SHMONA Can Kiryat Shmona repeat last season's incredible first season in the top division? New coach Michel Dayan will hope so, but will know that while the third-place finish of 2008 wasn't a fluke by any means, it was a result of poor performances by many of the big teams as well as superb consistency by Ironi. Dayan has replaced Ran Ben-Shimon, who left Kiryat Shmona for the big bucks of Alex Shnaider's Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the ex-Hapoel Jerusalem coach has a big job on his hands. The club's UEFA Cup run will have instilled confidence in the lead-up to the opening game against newly promoted Hapoel Petah Tikva, but Dayan and his players will know anything higher than a fifth-place finish is unlikely. Abas Suan will continue to be a strong influence in midfield while new forward Omer Peretz, who has moved north from Maccabi Tel Aviv, will provide the strike power. Last season: 3rd place (15 wins - 11 draws - 7 losses), 56 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: The team repeats last year's heroics and finishes in the top four again. Worst case: An Ipswich Town-style fall from grace sees Kiryat Shmona dumped back into the National League, never to be seen in the top division again. BNEI SAKHNIN Last season was another stunner for Sakhnin and it was only a few poor performances towards the end of the campaign which left it in fourth rather than third position in the standings. However things have changed. Strikers Maor Buzaglo and Ilya Yavorian were responsible for many of the best things Sakhnin did in 2007/08 and both left for Maccabi Tel Aviv in the summer, leaving a gap up front, while the club's Doha Stadium isn't even ready for the start of the season. Coach Elisha Levy left for Maccabi Haifa, taking star Colombian midfielder John Culma with him, and he has been replaced by former Maccabi Herzliya coach Fredi David. Mazua Ensombo, the former Betar Jerusalem Congolese central midfielder, has arrived from Hapoel Tel Aviv and will provide much needed strength defensive and attacking strength in the middle. And after five seasons at Hapoel Tel Aviv, Tal Hen will be hoping to show his experience at the back in Sakhnin this season. Last season: Last season: 4th place (15 wins - 10 draws - 8 losses), 55 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups -1 (2004) Best case: Another outstanding campaign confounds the critics Worst case: The money just isn't there and Sakhnin teeter on the brink of relegation all season. MACCABI HAIFA It's been a difficult few years for Maccabi Haifa. The once perennial Premier League champion has been brought down to earth with a horrible bump and didn't even make it into Europe last season. But Roni Levy has quit and new coach Elisha Levy has every chance of inspiring his new team to a much more successful campaign. Owner Ya'akov Shahar demands success and will hope that this is the time for veterans like striker Yaniv Katan, midfielder Gustavo Boccolli and goalkeeper Nir Davidovitch to return to form and take control of the league like they did in the past. Youngster Lior Rafaelov is ready to come of age and become a key player in Haifa success. Last season: 5th place (13 wins - 8 draws - 12 losses), 47 points. Titles: Championships - 10 (1983/84, 1984/85, 1988/89, 1990/91, 1993/94, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06), State Cups - 5 (1962, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998) Best case: The veterans take control and propel Haifa back to the top. Worst case: Another failure of a season ends with empty stands at Kiryat Eliezer. MACCABI TEL AVIV New coach Ran Ben-Shimon was hoping to have a big impact on Maccabi from the word go but the preseason results have been less than impressive. However, Canadian owner Alex Shnaider shouldn't worry, at least not yet. Ben-Shimon proved his credentials at Kiryat Shmona and has done well to bring strikers Ilya Yavorian and Maor Buzaglo in from Bnei Sakhnin. Buzaglo, especially, has shown touches of brilliance over the last year and will be raring to show just what he can do up front and perhaps even win a place on a European team for next season. Liberian midfielder Dulee Johnson finally joined in July from AIK Athens following a drawn-out transfer saga, and if he lives up to his billing, can hold the team together. Last season: 6th place (11 wins - 8 draws - 14 losses), 41 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: Shnaider's money and Buzaglo's brilliance win Maccabi the league Worst case: Buzaglo flops, Ben-Shimon is sacked after three months and Tel Aviv finish in mid-table once again. HAPOEL TEL AVIV After the disaster which was Guy Luzon's time as Hapoel coach last season, Eli Gutman came in mid-campaign and steadied the ship. A good run towards the end of the season pulled the team out of the relegation battle and it even fell into Europe after losing to Betar Jerusalem in the State Cup final. 2008/09 will be a time for Hapoel to pull itself together. A good European run will be nice but not essential but this time around there will be few hopes of a title win. Charismatic Brazilian midfielder Fabio Junior has left after failing to deliver the goods, as has Reuven Oved. There have been no big signings for Hapoel although Douglas Da Silva could be a good purchase. Last season: 7th place (12 wins - 5 draws - 16 losses), 41 points. Titles: Championships - 7 (1956/57, 1965/66, 1968/69, 1980/81, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1999/00), State Cups - 7 (1960, 1972, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007) Best case: A consistent campaign ends in a European position Worst case: More relegation battles end with Hapoel finishing one off the bottom. ASHDOD SC Following half a season at Betar Jerusalem, a couple of weeks at Maccabi Petah Tikva and a brief fling at Apollon Limasol in Cyprus, coach Yossi Mizrahi is back at Ashdod. And little has changed, even after Haim Revivo took over as coach for a few games last season when Alon Hazan couldn't hack it. Revivo's brother David is still the best player and Ashdod is still a small club proud to be included in the top division standings. Shai Holtzman is now a veteran at the club but can still score goals and will be aiming to keep the team in the top flight for another season. Last season: 8th place (11 wins - 6 draws - 16 losses), 39 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: The team does well early on, securing a mid-table finish Worst case: Mizrahi's magic doesn't work and Ashdod's Premier League period ends. BNEI YEHUDA With just eight games to go last season Bnei Yehuda was rock bottom of the league standings, 11 points from safety, and the team's relegation from the top division was hardly in question. But the decision to replace coach Nitzan Shirazi with his brother Hezi Shirazi and Ya'akov Asayag proved inspired and the team went on an unforgettable great escape run of eight wins in a row. Whether replacing the interim coaches with Hapoel Tel Aviv failure Guy Luzon is a good idea remains to be seen. Tomer Hemed could be a good purchase from Maccabi Herzliya but there is little doubt the team from southern Tel Aviv will struggle again. Titles: Championships - 1 (1989/90), State Cups - 2 (1968, 1981) Last season: 9th place (11 wins - 5 draws - 17 losses), 38 points. Best case: A Kiryat Shmona inspired consistent campaign propels Bnei Yehuda above its Tel Aviv rivals. Worst case: No great escape this time. MACCABI PETAH TIKVA When Nitzan Shirazi quit as coach of Maccabi Petah Tikva just a week before the start of this coming season, the situation looked somewhat shaky. But instead of choosing one of the usual out-of-work coaches like Reuven Atar, owner Amos Luzon pulled off what could be a masterstroke in bringing Betar Jerusalem youth team coach Guy Azuri to the club. Azuri has served his time as assistant coach at Betar, first to Eli Ohana, then Luis Fernandez, before being relegated to the youth set up. But he stayed quiet, won consecutive league titles with the Jerusalem youngsters and now has his chance in the big time. Unfortunately he doesn't have the most talented resources ever available although striker Lior Asulin, who has come in from Hapoel Tel Aviv and worked with Azuri at Betar in the past, will be eager to show he is better than he was last season. Last season: 10th place (10 wins - 7 draws - 16 losses), 37 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 1 (1952) Best case: Azuri is an inspiration and the Luzons finish towards the top of the table Worst case: The coach can't cope with the individual pressure in his first top job and the team slides away down the table. HAKOACH RAMAT GAN The team in yellow and purple pulled away in the National League title race for a return to the Premier League at the first attempt, but will know it's a more difficult task to stay up this time around. Coach Dudu Dahan hasn't had much money to bolster the squad and will rely on defender Asi Domb to hold the fort at the back and try and hold off the opposition strikers. There will be no illusions that this is the time for the glory years to return and the aim will be simply to secure safety. Last season: National League champion Titles: Championships: 2 (1964/65, 1972/73), State Cups: 2 - (1969, 1971). Best case: Finishing a few points off relegation. Worst case: Going straight back down. HAPOEL PETAH TIKVA One season out of the top division was enough for Hapoel Petah Tikva and the club is back where it believes it belongs. Hapoel has a far more illustrious history than its cross-town rival and will aim to prove this, not only in the derby matches, but throughout the league campaign. Since it came second in the National League to take promotion, goalkeeper Shavit Elimelech has come in from Kiryat Shmona. But what may prove to be more significant is a loan move for Betar Jerusalem's Chen Azriel. The 20-year-old got league experience at the champions last term but needs more of a consistent run in the team to show his true talents. Last season: Second place, National League Titles: Championships - 6: (1954\5, 1958\9, 1959\60, 1960\1, 1961\2, 1962\3). State Cups - 2 (1957, 1992.) Best case: Azriel scores more than 20 goals and Hapoel Petah Tikva finishes well above its rival Maccabi. Worst case: A relegation battle ends with the drop.