The Last Word: Is this the end of the Haifa dynasty?

Last season, it took more than 10 matches before Maccabi Haifa even drew a league game, let alone lost one.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
Talk about starting with a bang! Maybe this is the year the tide starts turning in Israeli soccer's top division. Last season, it took more than 10 matches before Maccabi Haifa even drew a league game, let alone lost one. But over the weekend, the perennial Israeli champion was defeated in its first match of the season. Maccabi Netanya may have had a massive boost in the summer in the shape of German-Jewish businessman Daniel Jammer, but few people would have expected the newly assembled team to defeat the mighty greens so easily. Apparently 3-1 was a fair scoreline. Granted, it's not been an easy summer for Maccabi Haifa. For more than a month, the players were forced to train outside of the city as it suffered daily bombardments of the Hizbullah's rockets. And the majority of the team's foreign contingent moved into a hotel in Tel Aviv to escape the attacks. Not exactly perfect preparation for the new season. And this was coupled with some of Haifa's best players leaving the club. Yaniv Katan has returned after his brief time at West Ham. But Idan Tal, who moved to join Tal Ben-Haim at Bolton, and Michael Zandberg and Arik Benado, who both transferred to Betar Jerusalem, were some of its most experienced players. Then came the UEFA debacle. We might have thought that European soccer's governing body would realize that even if it was pressure from Liverpool that led it to ban Israeli clubs from hosting UEFA competition games, once the war finished and the cease-fire took hold, it was time to return to normal. The whole situation with Haifa being forced to play outside the country must have played havoc with the players' mental preparation and this showed in the second leg. But despite all these excuses, the fact is that the greens were beaten and already the league is wide open. Betar Jerusalem played Maccabi Tel Aviv later Sunday night. Could it finally be Betar's time, or maybe even Hapoel Tel Aviv could win the league? Betar's impressive results in preseason training matches have been dwarfed by its failures in both the Toto Cup and UEFA Cup. A 1-0 loss in the first leg against Dinamo Bucharest was acceptable considering the ridiculously waterlogged pitch. But in its "home" leg, played before a handful of fans in Sofia last week, Betar again looked less than impressive. The team lacks a killer instinct. And it is looking likely to be another difficult season for Arkady Gaydamak and his expensively put together team. Hapoel Tel Aviv, however, appears to have found the instinct to win at the last minute. Its last gasp victory over Slovenian side Domzale will give the team confidence as it heads into its season opener against Bnei Yehuda on Monday night. Bnei Yehuda was predictably soundly beaten in Europe, while Hapoel appears to have been handed an easy tie against Ukranian team Chornomorets in the first round of the UEFA Cup. A good result at Bloomfield in the Tel Aviv derby and who knows how far last season's State Cup winner Hapoel can go.