Soccer season dawns with scintillating storylines

A look at the 14 soccer teams that will be battling it out for glory over the next nine months.

Ironi Kiryat Shmona players lift the Toto Cup 521 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Ironi Kiryat Shmona players lift the Toto Cup 521
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
After Ironi Kiryat Shmona stormed to a stunning championship last season, the Premier League’s traditional big guns will be raring to reclaim what they deem as their just place at the top of the pack as the 2012/13 campaign gets underway this weekend.
Kiryat Shmona clinched an historic league title almost unchallenged last season, but the likes of Reuven Atar’s rejuvenated Maccabi Haifa, the new-look Hapoel Tel Aviv and the rebuilt Maccabi Tel Aviv are once more the favorites to win the championship.
Teams are listed in order of last season’s finish.
The only thing that could possibly be more surprising than Kiryat Shmona’s triumph last season would be the northerners actually defending their title in 2012/13.
Kiryat Shmona built a double-digit lead at the top of the standings as early as January and in its fourth season in the top flight became the first real small club to win the championship since Bnei Yehuda in the 1989/90 campaign.
There is seemingly only one direction the team can go after last season’s high, but Kiryat Shmona has every intention of proving that the historic championship was not a one-off but rather a breakthrough paving the path for many more titles.
Although the architect of the success, coach Ran Ben-Shimon, left acrimoniously at the end of the season and was replaced by Gili Landau, Kiryat Shmona did manage to hold on to almost all of its squad. The continuity was paramount in recent weeks as the team progressed to the Champions League playoffs, guaranteeing itself at least a Europa League group berth.
Playing continental soccer deep into the winter will also present Kiryat Shmona with a new challenge and it remains to be seen how Landau’s side will cope with two games a week, not to mention the fact that it has become a prize scalp for every other team in the league.
Player to watch out for: Ben Vahaba – The 20-year-old defender will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Shir Tzedek and Eitan Tibi who went from complete anonymity to the Israel squad in less than a season.
Titles: Championships – 1 (2011/12). State Cups – 0.
Best-case scenario: Kiryat Shmona fights for the title until the final week of the season only to fall just short.
Worst-case scenario: Kiryat Shmona struggles to handle the strains of playing European soccer and wallows in mediocrity.
Nine players have come and gone over the summer, but the biggest change at Hapoel has been in the boardroom. Former member of Knesset Haim Ramon, backed by investors, purchased the club from Eli Tabib, bringing to an end one of the rockiest periods in team history.
Coach Nitzan Shirazi remained at the helm after guiding Hapoel to the State Cup last season, but he will be working with an almost completely new squad. Around half of the side’s starting lineup from 2011/12 will not return, with Avihai Yadin and Toto Tamuz still looking for new clubs.
Hapoel opted for experience at the expense of youth in its selection of new foreigners, with defender John Paintsil (31) returning from England for a second stint at the club and former Manchester United midfielder Eric Djemba- Djemba (31) arriving from the Danish league.
The speed in which Brazilian midfielder Bruno acclimatizes could be crucial to Hapoel’s hopes of glory, especially with Shay Abutbul to miss the first three months of the season through injury.
The partnership up front between former Maccabi Petah Tikva teammates Omer Damari and Tal Ben-Haim should be unstoppable at times, and Shirazi will be depending on their goals as Hapoel looks to return to the top of the pile under its new ownership.
Player to watch out for: Ze’ev Haimovich – The 29-year-old defender spent the last three seasons in Terek Grozny in Russia after receiving a lucrative offer from the club from Chechnya.
However, this will be his first experience at a big club in Israel and much of Hapoel’s hopes will depend on his success at the heart of the defense.
Titles: Championships – 8 (1956/57, 1965/66, 1968/69, 1980/81, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1999/00, 2009/10). State Cups – 10 (1960, 1972, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012).
Best-case scenario: After initially only arriving on an interim basis, Shirazi becomes a Hapoel hero after leading it to just its second championship in 13 years.
Worst-case scenario: For the first time in four seasons Hapoel ends a season placed below arch-rival Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It is a testament to Bnei Yehuda’s consistency that it owns the second longest active streak of playing in European competition among Israeli clubs.
Only Hapoel Tel Aviv’s seven straight seasons of participation in continental competition eclipse Bnei Yehuda’s current run of four, although the club from south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood has already seen its 2012/13 campaign come to an end with a defeat to PAOK Thessaloniki in the third qualifying round of the Europa League.
The fact that three different coaches have guided the team in the past four seasons makes Bnei Yehuda’s success all the more impressive and expectations will be no lower this season with Dror Kashtan back at the helm.
Kashtan guided Bnei Yehuda in 2010/11 and returns after being sacked by Hapoel Tel Aviv last season. Much of the squad he coached two years ago is still around, and that stability should ensure Bnei Yehuda remains among the league’s top clubs once more.
Player to watch out for: Amir Agajev – The 20-year-old striker will have plenty of opportunities to make his breakthrough this season with Kashtan having few other options up front.
Titles: Championships – 1 (1989/90). State Cups – 2 (1968, 1981).
Best-case scenario: Bnei Yehuda goes one better than last season and finishes in second place to qualify for Europe for a fifth straight year.
Worst-case scenario: The lack of significant new signings takes its toll and Bnei Yehuda doesn’t even make the top-six championship playoffs.
Netanya will have a completely new look, with influential coach Reuven Atar leaving for Maccabi Haifa and eight of last season’s players also departing.
New coach Tal Banin impressed with his leadership skills in guiding Hapoel Haifa to safety last season, building a fighting unit from a despondent squad.
Netanya fans have been spoiled by Atar in the past few years, but Banin has every intention of maintaining the same level of success this season, despite the departures of Hen Ezra and Nir Nahum.
Idan Shriki, Ali Khatib and Yossi Shivhon are three of Banin’s new signings, and with last season’s top scorer, Ahmed Saba, also still around, Netanya has one of the league’s best forward lines.
Expectations in Netanya are higher than they have been for many years, but Banin is not one to shirk away from a challenge, and regardless of how the season unfolds, Netanya will provide one of the more fascinating storylines of 2012/13.
Player to watch out for: Arnon Tamir – At 26-years-old, the midfielder should have made his breakthrough by now. However, he has spent his career to date in the lower divisions and will be determined to pay back Banin for the faith he has shown in him.
Titles: Championships – 5 (1970/71, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1982/83). State Cups – 1 (1978).
Best-case scenario: Banin picks up where Atar left off and Netanya qualifies for Europe for a second straight season.
Worst-case scenario: Netanya fans chant Atar’s name as Banin’s team drops into the relegation playoffs.
Only once in the past 12 years has Maccabi Haifa gone successive seasons without winning the championship and this campaign will be all about avoiding such a scenario.
Haifa’s fifth-place finish last season was its worse in four years, resulting in the departure of coach Elisha Levy.
After years of speculation, Greens legend Reuven Atar finally returned to his boyhood club, this time as a coach, and expectations couldn’t be any higher.
Atar impressed at Maccabi Netanya over the last three seasons and will have a far better squad to work with at Haifa.
The Greens only made four significant signings, including that of rising star Hen Ezra from Netanya, but the squad left behind by Levy has vast promise and Atar has proven to be an expert at helping young players to fulfill their potential.
As disappointing as it was to miss out on qualification for European competition last season, the lack of a distraction from continental play should work in Haifa’s favor as it looks to build a unified unit that will take the Greens back to the top.
Player to watch out for: Roei Atar – The 18- year-old finds himself in an awkward position being the son of the coach, but any one who has seen the teenager in action knows that he will earn every minute on field purely on merit.
Titles: Championships – 12 (1983/84, 1984/85, 1988/89, 1990/91, 1993/94, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2010/11). State Cups – 5 (1962, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998).
Best-case scenario: The dream scenario for Haifa fans is realized as the return of Atar also results in the return of the championship to Kiryat Eliezer.
Worst-case scenario: Haifa fans yearn for the days of Elisha Levy.
Surely this will be the season Maccabi Tel Aviv finally reaches the Promised Land.
At least that is what Maccabi fans will be telling themselves ahead of the start of the campaign after the yellow-and-blue’s summer overhaul and promising pre-season.
Jordi Cruyff was brought in as a sports director and he signed Spaniard Oscar Garcia as the team’s coach.
Oscar is guiding a senior team for the first time after spending the last two years coaching the Barcelona youth team.
The Spaniard has been given a deep squad to work with by Cruyff, who among others has brought in Spaniards Gonzalo Garcia and Carlos Garcia as well as Maharan Radi from Bnei Sakhnin.
However, the most crucial signing of all was that of 30-year-old goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
The Nigerian established his place as one of the best ’keepers to ever play in Israel in his four years at Hapoel Tel Aviv, before spending all of last season on the bench of French side Lille.
Enyeama’s presence will instill much-needed confidence into the team, and should Maccabi go on to win just its second championship in 17 years, the goalkeeper’s addition will surely be looked back on as a defining moment.
Player to watch out for: Munas Dabbur – The 20-year-old striker gave Maccabi fans a taste of what he is capable last season and everything is in place for him to make his big breakthrough in the coming year.
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 scenario: Maccabi fans learn that the longer the wait the sweeter the triumph after their team clinches its first championship since 2003.
Worst-case scenario: Owner Mitch Goldhar has to think of something new to try after the Cruyff-Oscar revolution fails just like everything else Maccabi has attempted in recent seasons.
Ashdod will be a force to be reckoned with for as long as Yossi Mizrahi remains in charge of the team, but a return to the championship playoffs looks unlikely at this stage.
The departures of Idan Shriki and Rodgers Kola have left a real void and should Nir Biton and Efe Ambrose also move on as expected, Ashdod’s squad will be significantly weaker than it was last season.
Bulgarian striker Dimitar Makriev is back as is veteran midfielder David Revivo, but Mizrahi will need to rely on the contribution of players from the youth department more than ever before.
Ultimately, it is their eventual progress which will determine if Ashdod finishes in the top half of the standings or finds itself tangled in the battle against relegation.
Player to watch out for: Niv Zrihen – The 18-year-old son of Ashdod’s all-time leading scorer Yigal will be hoping to prove he has inherited his father’s knack for finding the back of the net.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best-case scenario: Mizrahi gets Ashdod to play better than the sum of its parts yet again on the way to the championship playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: The squad’s inexperience sees Ashdod drop into the relegation playoffs.
Yet again, there was not a moment of peace in Sakhnin over the summer, with infighting among the management members hampering coach Shlomi Dora’s preparations for the campaign.
Nevertheless, the additions of Ali Osman and Mohammed Kalibat will help make up for the critical departures of Maharan Radi and Kostadin Hazurov and if anyone can get Sakhnin players to ignore the off-court issues and steer the team clear of relegation once more it is Dora.
Player to watch out for: Mohammed Kalibat – The 22-year-old didn’t start as many matches as he would have liked at Maccabi Netanya last season, but with Sakhnin’s short squad he should be given all the minutes he can handle in 2012/13.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 1 (2004).
Best-case scenario: Dora is still the coach when the season ends after Sakhnin happily settles for a mid-table finish.
Worst-case scenario: Dora is long gone by the time Sakhnin avoids relegation by the skin of its teeth in the final week of the season.
Betar fans have already gotten used to turbulent summers, but the past few months were even tumultuous by their standards as many of them found themselves personally involved in the off-field developments.
Club owner Arkadi Gaydamak came to an agreement of cooperation with an organization of Betar fans earlier this week that gave the supporters a say in the decision making and injected NIS 2.1 million into the cash-stricken club collected from thousands of fans over recent months.
Coach Eli Cohen couldn’t make any signings until the money came through, and will only have a limited squad to work with this season.
Cohen inspired the team to eight straight victories at the end of last season which secured it another year of top-flight soccer and he will have to work his magic once more if Jerusalem is to finish in the top six and avoid the relegation playoffs in the coming campaign.
Player to watch out for: Omer Nahmani – The 18- year-old has impressed Cohen and with Betar’s limited options he is likely to be given plenty of chances to shine in coming months.
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 scenario: Betar sneaks into the championship playoffs and beats Hapoel Tel Aviv to deny it the league title.
Worst-case scenario: Betar finds itself mixed up in the relegation battle for a second straight season.
Acre will have a completely new look this season.
Coach Shimon Hadari has taken the place of Eli Cohen and last season’s stars Nicolas Falczuk, Stefan Scepovic and Sintiyahu Salalik have all left.
Hadari will have his work cut out for him with most of his squad having little Premier League experience.
Acre proved all its doubters wrong in the past three years, but 2012/13 could well be its toughest season since it returned to the Premier League after 32 years in the lower divisions.
Player to watch out for: Tamir Kahlon – There is no doubt regarding the talent of the 24-year-old midfielder, but after struggling at Maccabi Tel Aviv and short unsuccessful loan stints in Belgium and Poland, time is running out for Kahlon to prove his worth.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best-case scenario: A winning start to the season means the prospect of a fight against relegation never even crosses Acre’s mind.
Worst-case scenario: Acre lives to rue Cohen’s departure as it returns to the National League after four seasons.
A poor finish to last season almost resulted in Ramat Hasharon returning to the National League after just one year in the top flight.
The small club ultimately survived and that is all that should be expected from new coach Nissan Yehezkel in the coming season.
Ramat Hasharon doesn’t have the worse squad in the league, but Yehezkel will need to get the team to play better than the sum of its parts to survive.
Player to watch out for: Yordan Miliev – The 24-year-old defender has four caps for the Bulgarian national team and could prove to be a real steal.
Titles: Championships – 0. State Cups – 0.
Best-case scenario: Ramat Hasharon cements its place in the top flight.
Worst-case scenario: After two years, Ramat Hasharon is back where it belongs – in the National League.
Under the guidance of coach Tal Banin, Haifa managed to recover from an horrendous start to last season to secure its survival in the last weekend of the campaign.
The experienced Nir Klinger has stepped into Banin’s shoes and after last season’s trauma, there’s no reason Haifa shouldn’t rebound with a mid-table finish.
Player to watch out for: Guy Lipka. The 21- year-old is a product of the Maccabi Haifa youth department and 2012/13 could be the season he finally makes his mark.
Titles: Championships – 1 (1998\99). State Cups – 3 (1963, 1966, 1974).
Best-case scenario: A derby win over the Greens caps an otherwise eventless season.
Worst-case scenario: Klinger is back commentating on TV before the end of the year after a dismal start to the campaign.
Beersheba had to sweat until the very last moment of last season before it booked another year in the Premier League, but that has done nothing to lower the expectations ahead of the coming campaign.
Owner Alona Barkat made an ideal signing in coach Elisha Levy and he has strengthened the squad with experienced foreigners in key positions.
Solid goalkeeper Austin Ejide arrived from Hapoel Petah Tikva, with Nicolas Falczuk joining from Acre and William Njovu arriving from Kiryat Shmona.
Beersheba fans have waited a long time to see their team compete as equals with the league’s best and this could be their season.
Player to watch out for: Roei Kehat – The 20-year-old midfielder showed sparks of his potential at Maccabi Tel Aviv last season and he could be Levy’s secret weapon.
Titles: Championships – 2 (1974/75, 1975/76). State Cups – 1 (1997).
Best-case scenario: Levy brings calm to one of the more stressful clubs in the country and Beersheba qualifies for the championship playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: Beersheba fans forget where their team was last season and voice their discontent at a mid-table finish.
Ramat Gan gained promotion from the National League just one year after being relegated and it is set to battle at the bottom yet again. Coach Freddy David has vast top-flight experience, but he will have to work some miracles with his squad for Ramat Gan to maintain its Premier League status.
Player to watch out for: Bernard Onanga – The 23-year-old Frenchman, who came through AJ Auxerre’s heralded youth department, will anchor Ramat Gan’s defense.
Titles: Championships – 1 (1963/64). State Cups – 1 (2003).
Best-case scenario: Ramat Gan surprises everyone and avoids relegation in the last week of the season.
Worst-case scenario: Ramat Gan occupies the foot of the table from start to finish.