Time to kick off another local soccer season

Reigning-champion Mac TA primed for repeat, although Hap TA, Mac Haifa and even Beitar lurk.

maccabi haifa's rayo in action 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger and Reuters)
maccabi haifa's rayo in action 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger and Reuters)
Maccabi Tel Aviv remains the team to beat in the Israeli Premier League as the 2013/14 campaign gets underway this weekend.
Maccabi clinched its first league title in 10 years last season, but has got a new coach in Paulo Sousa of Portugal following the departure of Spaniard Oscar Garcia.
The yellow-and-blue maintained the core of last season’s winning squad, but matters will be far from straightforward for Maccabi with two of last season’s anchors leaving during the summer. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was the foundation to Tel Aviv’s composed defensive play in 2012/13, while Eliran Atar scored a league-best 22 goals.
With a place in the Europa League group stage already guaranteed thanks to a Ukrainian match-fixing scandal and some very good fortune, Tel Aviv has no distractions ahead of Saturday’s opener at Hapoel Acre.
“We are in good shape, all the players are fit at the moment and that presents me with some difficult choices,” Sousa said on Thursday. “It was no mean feat to win the championship after 10 years but now it will be even more difficult to retain it.
“Our goal is to have a squad that is strong enough to compete for the title. We need a squad that will enable us to challenge in all competitions.”
Maccabi’s main challenge for the title is expected to come from two teams, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv. Despite a dismal start to last season, Haifa ended 2012/13 in second place, surging up the standings following the hiring of coach Arik Benado to replace the sacked Reuven Atar.
Unlike Tel Aviv, Haifa is currently focused on its Europa League playoff tie versus Astra of Romania. The Greens visit Ironi Kiryat Shmona in a tricky first match on Sunday, just 72 hours after hosting Astra.
Kiryat Shmona will have a completely new look this season, with the backbone of the 2011/12 championship-winning side no longer around. However, owner Izzy Sheratzky and coach Barak Bachar have assembled a squad which is more than capable of finishing among the top five in the league for a fourth straight season.
Hapoel Tel Aviv enters its first game of the campaign still licking its wounds from a surprise early exit from European competition.
After four straight seasons in the group stages of continental competitions, Hapoel was outplayed in a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Pandurii Târgu Jiu of Romania in the Europa League third qualifying round, mounting even more pressure on the side ahead of Sunday’s opener against Bnei Sakhnin at Bloomfield Stadium.
New coach Ran Ben-Shimon was brought in to rebuild the team after last season’s disappointment, but he finds himself with his back against the wall before the new season has even started.
After another rocky summer, Beitar Jerusalem begins its campaign against Hapoel Beersheba at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Saturday, with the Teddy Stadium pitch still recovering from the Maccabiah.
Beitar’s squad is still a work in progress, but new owner Eli Tabib, who bought the club from Arkady Gaydamak, is determined to have a winning team from day one, making arguably the biggest signing of the summer on Thursday.
Ibrahim Teteh Bangura has been linked in the past with the likes of Manchester United, but the 23-year-old striker will be playing for Beitar this season, leaving Turkish club Bursaspor on a one-year loan deal.
Beersheba has also made some impressive signings this summer, including the likes of Elyaniv Barda and Maor Buzaglo.
Unlike Beitar, Beersheba all but completed the building of its squad more than a month ago and has got high expectations from this season after also holding on to key players from last term.
Also Saturday, the league’s two newly-promoted teams face each other when Hapoel Ra’anana welcomes Maccabi Petah Tikva, while last season’s surprise side Hapoel Ramat Hasharon hosts Hapoel Haifa and Ashdod SC visits Bnei Yehuda.
On TV: Saturday: Hapoel Acre vs Maccabi Tel Aviv (live on Sport 1 at 5:35 p.m.); Beitar Jerusalem vs Hapoel Beersheba (live on Sport 1 at 8 p.m.)