The Last Word: Local season is defying expectations across the board

The Last Word Local sea

The stunning manner in which Maccabi Haifa has dominated the Israeli Premier League has been just one of many surprising aspects of a campaign which has thus far turned expectations on their head. After nine rounds of action, the league takes a breather for the international break this weekend, providing a perfect opportunity for the teams and their fans to take a step back and assess how the season has gone so far. With the first section of the campaign less than a third of the way through, it is a little early to make any concrete analyses. But even at this early stage, it is safe to say that many of the preseason assumptions have already been proven to be way off the mark. Even though Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv were by far the strongest teams in the league last season, and both managed to slightly improve their squads over the sum, the general belief was that they would not be able to challenge for the top spot at home while playing tough games in Europe every other week. Just as the local season began, Haifa qualified for the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2002 and Tel Aviv for the Europa League group stage - the competition formerly known as the UEFA Cup, in which Hapoel has been a regular fixture for much of the decade. Never before has an Israeli team managed to juggle the pressures of continental competition with those of the Israeli league and come out on top. A case in point is the 2002/03 campaign when Maccabi Haifa didn't do badly in Europe, but went on to lose the league title to Maccabi Tel Aviv, albeit on goal difference. However, despite the constant burden of preparing for playing against such difficult opposition as Bayern Munich and Juventus, Elisha Levy's men have proved their worth and stormed into a nine-point lead at the top of the standings by winning all nine of their games so far. The sudden development of striker Shlomi Arbeitman from a bit-part player into the most lethal marksman in the league has been crucial to the Greens' accomplishments, which have come in the face of disappointment in the Champions League. Even more astounding has been Hapoel Tel Aviv's transformation, after a shaky start, into a team playing some of the best soccer seen on these shores for years, both in the local league and in Europe. In the face of many doubters of coach Eli Gutman's abilities, he has underlined his credentials as a potential future Israel national team coach by building and managing a powerful side which has torn apart its opposition week after week. Left back Dedi Ben-Dayan was a crafty capture from Maccabi Netanya in July, while the strong midfield, led by Avihai Yadin and Gili Vermut, has been crucial to Tel Aviv's progress. Hapoel's annihilation of Rapid Vienna both home and away was indicative of just how far the Reds' have come since Gutman took the reins from Guy Luzon two years ago. In contrast to Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, Luzon's Bnei Yehuda is one team whose success this season has been far from surprising. When he was dumped out of Hapoel Tel Aviv, the consensus was the young coach was simply nowhere near good enough to run a club with European aspirations. But over the last 24 months he has gone on to show himself to be totally the opposite, turning Bnei Yehuda into a perennial top-four side while coming within a victory over Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven of qualifying for the Europa League group stage in August. The team from southern Tel Aviv is now in third position in the standings, tied on points with Hapoel Tel Aviv. A man who will undoubtedly be using the two-week break to take stock of his season is Betar Jerusalem coach Itzhak Schum. After the turbulence of a summer full of doubt over Betar's financial stability, philanthropist Guma Aguiar stepped out of the shadows to provide the cash needed to cover the budget and save the club from bankruptcy. Yes, a number of significant players left, including goalkeeper Tvrtko Kale and midfielders Michael Zandberg and Derek Boateng, and captain Aviram Bruchian has been out injured for the last few weeks. But Schum was left with the basis of a squad which had every right to consider itself a worthy challenger for the league title. Instead, the team has showed a lack of imagination in nearly all of its games, culminating in an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at Maccabi Netanya last weekend. Critics were quick to blame Schum for the failure in Netanya, and in the main, they were right. He is the man who is supposed to inspire the team and the evidence points to his inability to do so. On Sunday, Schum hit back at his opponents, telling the media that the criticisms showed a lack of respect, considering his achievements with Maccabi Haifa, which he took into the Champions League, Panathinaikos, where he won the Greek league and cup double, and with Betar, where he also won the double. But past success does not cover up present failures, and Schum has to face up to his current situation before it all falls apart around him. Another coach who will be glad of the break is Maccabi Tel Aviv's Avi Nimni. A year in, his tenure at the club of which he became a symbol as a player has been full of ups and downs. Nimni was reluctant to take the job in the first place after Ran Ben-Shimon was sacked a few games into last season. But he has illustrated his resilience even by sticking around this long, and, although not all the results have gone his way, Maccabi finds itself in fourth position and Nimni's tough attitude should should see him through to the end of the season. New owner Mitchell Goldhar, however, will not accept mediocrity for very long so Nimni must be looking for his players to step up in the months ahead. Maccabi Netanya coach Reuven Atar also deserves a mention. The 40-year-old bit the bullet in September when he accepted chairman Daniel Jammer's offer to take over at the club for a third time, and appears to have already changed the attitude of the players into a winning mentality, as seen with the victory over Jerusalem. One aspect of the Premier League which was predicted to be a bad move was the expansion from 12 to 16 teams. And while some of the promoted teams, most notably Hapoel Haifa, have put in good performances and challenged the top sides, the larger league has predictably led to too many uninteresting games with minuscule crowds of less than 1,000 people. However, Israeli soccer continues to fascinate and inspire, and, after this short break, the teams should be rejuvenated and ready to resume their battle for the title.