Local soccer: Mac Haifa takes on unlikely role of underdog

Champion Betar Jerusalem is a huge favorite to repeat last season's triumph.

Maccabi Haifa sad 298 (photo credit: AP)
Maccabi Haifa sad 298
(photo credit: AP)
For the first time in nearly a decade Maccabi Haifa enters a Premier League season without pressure to end the campaign with the league title. Champion Betar Jerusalem is a huge favorite to repeat last season's triumph and even Hapoel Tel Aviv seems to be a likelier contender than the northern club. Haifa, however, has no intention of giving up on a title chase this season, and has every intention on claiming the title for a sixth time in eight seasons. "We've made all the preparations needed so the team will be able to compete for every title," club president Jacob Shahar said. "The training camp was very successful and from what I've seen of the team so far I'm very impressed. "We are still planning to add several more players to our squad. I believe that when all is said and done we will have a better team than we did last season." Argentinian defender Diego Crosa, who joined from Racing Club, and Polish midfielder Lukatz Surma, who signed from Legia Warsaw, will replace Rafael Olara and Xavier Anderson in defense and midfield respectively. The two, however, are no more than solid players, meaning Maccabi's squad is arguably no better or worse than it was ahead of last season. Haifa was interested in signing up-and-coming strikers Omer Golan and Yaniv Azran, but Shahar, who was the first to buy an Israeli soccer club more than 20 years ago, admitted that even he was priced out of the market this summer. "The prices asked for players this summer were too high for us. Omer Golan and Idan Tal's demands were just too high," he said. "Every player has the right to make his own decisions, but we try and remain sensible in the transfer market. We lose money every season and it's not easy to balance our budget." Haifa coach Roni Levy, who will be guiding the team for a fifth straight season, is remaining positive despite Haifa's new underdog status. "We're not playing in European competition this season and I think that is very significant," Levy said. "We paid a price for playing in the UEFA Cup last season. We played 10 matches in European competition, all of them of a very high standard. Those matches drained us. "We need to try and translate our European form from last season to our league play this year. I'm sure our youngsters will improve and together with the veterans lead the team to good results." Levy was also keen to emphasize that the team will need to get the better of the entire league and play consistently well if it's to win the championship against the odds. "We're not competing just against Betar Jerusalem, but against an entire league. We intend to be a good and strong side. We're focusing on ourselves and not on other teams." Haifa's quiet summer on the transfer market was disrupted at the end of July when the club decided to sign Giovanni Rosso. Many of Maccabi's fans were opposed to the return of the Croatian, who played at Haifa for four seasons (2001-2005), guiding the team to three league titles and helping the side to the Champions League group stage. The midfielder angered supporters by leaving Kiryat Eliezer for arch-rival Maccabi Tel Aviv in the summer of 2005, but nevertheless Shahar decided to give Rosso a chance to end his career at Haifa. "The fact of the matter is that we made a decision against the wishes of the fans," said Shahar. "The supporters have a right to tell us how they feel, but as soon as the decision is made, even if they don't like it, they must accept it." Alon Harazi knows Haifa probably better than anybody else. Harazi joined the club ahead of the 1990/91 season and left the team just once for a single season during the last 17 years. "You could see in our last training camp that this team is totally different to the one that ended last season," the veteran defender said. "We're certain that this year's team will be much better than last seasons'. The players are far more motivated. All the players feel very good about the way the team looks. "We should, however, take matters one step at a time and not look too far ahead into the future."