Who can win the fight for Maccabi Haifa's title?

A new system and the economic crisis dominate the new Premier League season, but Haifa, Betar, and Hapoel Tel Aviv are still favorites.

soccer 88 (photo credit: )
soccer 88
(photo credit: )
The Israeli Premier League returns to action this weekend with a new format which many players and coaches feel is as ridiculous as it is confusing and unsporting. Besides increasing the number of the teams in the league to 16, the Israel Football Association has made several more revolutionary changes. After two rounds in which each team will play 30 matches, the league will be split into three sections and the teams will have their point totals halved. The top six teams will play each other one more time to decide the champion and European places. The bottom six teams will also each play another five times to determine the relegation battle, with the four teams placed in the middle of the standings playing three more games to decide who finishes in the seventh to 10th positions. The new format and the financial crisis mean the coming season promises to be one of the tightest ever. Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai takes a look at the 16 teams which will be battling for results over the coming nine months. MACCABI HAIFA No one expected Haifa to claim the league title at the start of last season, but the team made the most of the vacuum left by the dysfunctional Betar Jerusalem and beat out Hapoel Tel Aviv to win an 11th championship in club history. Haifa enters this season in a completely different situation, not only as the defending champion, but also as many people's favorite to win a second straight league title. Coach Elisha Levy made few changes to last season's triumphant squad, with Georgian striker Vladimir Dvalishvili currently looking like the club's most significant purchase of the summer after scoring four goals in five European appearances. Haifa's hopes of defending its title will very much depend on the team's ability to cope with playing two matches a week for the first three months of the season, as even if it fails to make the Champions League group stage it will be handed an automatic berth to the Europa League group stage. No Israeli team has ever managed to succeed on both fronts simultaneously, but you can be certain that Levy's Haifa will be giving its best to become the first. Player to watch out for: Eyal Golasa. The 17-year-old showed signs of his potential last season, and will get far more chances to show why he is regarded as one of Israel's best young players. Last season: 1st place (19 wins - 10 draws - 4 losses), 67 points. Titles: Championships - 11 (1983/84, 1984/85, 1988/89, 1990/91, 1993/94, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, 2008/09), State Cups - 5 (1962, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998) Best case: Yaniv Katan has another superb season while the team's youngsters come of age and help Haifa to back-to-back title. Worst case: Competing on two fronts proves to be too much for Haifa and the team doesn't even challenge for the title. HAPOEL TEL AVIV Coach Eli Gutman's team came close to winning its first championship in nine years last season and will be one of the favorites this year after holding on to the core of its squad and adding three Israel internationals. The signings of Michael Zandberg, Dedi Ben-Dayan and Itai Shechter give Hapoel perhaps the strongest squad in the league, especially as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and striker Samuel Yeboah didn't leave for Europe like many expected. Tel Aviv has looked very good in the lead-up to the season, but like Haifa might also need to compete on the continental and local stages simultaneously should it advance to the Europa League's group stage. Regardless, together with Haifa, Hapoel is the oddsmakers favorite to win the championship. Player to watch out for: Avihai Yadin. The 22-year-old cemented his place as a starter last season. After making his Israel debut last week he will be hoping to take another giant leap forward in the coming campaign. Last season: 2nd place (17 wins - 10 draws - 6 losses), 61 points. Titles: Championships - 7 (1956/57, 1965/66, 1968/69, 1980/81, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1999/00), State Cups - 7 (1960, 1972, 1983, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007) Best case: Ten years after winning its last league title, Hapoel is the champion once more. Worst case: Hapoel can't maintain its early season form and fails to even clinch a European berth. BETAR JERUSALEM Considering the club almost ceased to exist over the summer, expectations aren't very high in Jerusalem. The $4 million given to the club by sponsor Guma Aguiar made sure Betar avoided bankruptcy and the core of last season's squad remains after the players agreed to take pay-cuts of up to 50 percent. Itzhak Schum replaces Reuven Atar on the sidelines in another financially motivated move, as the veteran coach was owed money for the coming season anyway after being sacked at the start of the last campaign. Junior Viza and Kobi Moyal return from loan, and Betar enters the season with a talented squad, which without the distraction of Arkadi Gaydamak could well put up a strong challenge to regain the league title. Player to watch out for: Idan Vered. The 20-year-old forward is coming off a breakthrough season and will be looking to prove he is on course to become the club's star of the future. Last season: 3rd place (16 wins - 12 draws - 5 losses), 57 points. 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: Betar goes from the brink of extinction to league champion within less than a year. Worst case: The tumultuous summer proves to be too difficult to overcome and Betar settles for a top-6 finish. MACCABI NETANYA Club owner Daniel Jammer slashed Netanya's budget ahead of this season and the team will suffer. That the unknown Nati Azariya replaced 1990 World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus on the sidelines pretty much says it all. Netanya lost four of its best players over the summer and signed no one of significance. The team will desperately miss goalkeeper Liran Strauber, left back Dedi Ben-Dayan and midfielder Itai Shechter and Luis Marin and no one realistically expects the youngsters, who will take their place, to maintain the side's position among the league's best. Player to watch out for: Dela Yampolsky. Many youngsters will be getting a chance to play at Natanya this season and the 21-year-old striker will finally be able to realize his potential. Last season: 4th place (14 wins - 12 draws - 7 losses), 54 points. Titles: Championships - 5 (1970/71, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1982/83), State Cups - 1 (1978) Best case: Azariya does just as well as Matthaus and the team finishes in a surprising fourth position. Worst case: Netanya's inexperienced coach and players finish among the league's bottom six and have to fight against relegation. BNEI YEHUDA One of the surprises of last season, Bnei Yehuda is hoping to make another step in the right direction this coming campaign. Coach Guy Luzon has built a balanced squad with a good mixture of experience and youth, making the team in orange many experts' dark horse to win the championship. It would be a real surprise if Bnei Yehuda does take a second league title in club history, but even if it doesn't, the side from south Tel Aviv will almost definitely be playing some of the best soccer in the league this season, especially with the likes of defender Dean Mori and striker Eliran Atar in the side. Player to watch out for: Hasan Abu Zaid. Luzon has been very impressed by the 18-year-old midfielder and he is likely to feature prominently in the coming campaign. Last season: 5th place (14 wins - 7 draws - 12 losses), 49 points. Titles: Championships - 1 (1989/90), State Cups - 2 (1968, 1981) Best case: Atar proves he is the best striker in the league and helps his team challenge for the championship at least until the final weeks of the season. Worst case: Luzon's men can't handle the high expectations and once more settle for a comfortable place in the middle of the standings. MACCABI TEL AVIV Maccabi is hoping to put the massive disappointment of last season behind it and the early signs are encouraging. The team has looked good in its Toto Cup matches and had a quiet summer by its standards, although it does have a new owner, with Mitchell Goldhar purchasing the club from fellow Canadian Alex Shnaider. The ownership change meant the club made few changes to its squad, with goalkeeper Liran Strauber and striker Yuval Avidor the biggest names to join the team. However, Maccabi is expected to sign at least a couple of more players in the coming weeks, and the fact that it is entering the season with little expectation gives coach Avi Nimni the perfect platform to turn the yellow-and-blue back into one of the league's best teams. Player to watch out for: Zion Zemah. The 19-year-old midfielder is one the most promising players to come through the Maccabi youth department in recent seasons. Last season: 6th place (11 wins - 11 draws - 11 losses), 44 points. 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: Maccabi continues to float under the radar at the start of the season and ends up as a legitimate title contender. Worst case: Goldhar goes Shnaider's way and after another disappointing season Maccabi is once more put on the market. MACCABI PETAH TIKVA The Luzons were expecting big things when they brought in coach Roni Levy midway through last term, but a disappointing second half to the campaign means the former Haifa coach is already under pressure before the season has even begun. As ever, Petah Tikva has a solid and balanced squad, but Levy will have his work cut out for himself this season as the owners are expecting, at the very least, to see their side secure a European berth. Player to watch out for: Tal Ben-Haim. The 20-year-old striker showed real promise last season and is on his way to becoming one of the league's best young scorers. Last season: 7th place (8 wins - 15 draws - 10 losses), 39 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 1 (1952) Best case: Levy guides Petah Tikva to Europe and is rewarded with a contract extension. Worst case: Petah Tikva continues to struggle and Levy becomes the sixth coach in less than three years to leave the club. ASHDOD SC Yossi Mizrahi remains at the helm, but once more nobody will be expecting much from the team. Bulgarian striker Dimitar Makriev and Idan Shriki remained at the club, but no one of significance joined after the budget was cut. Mizrahi has a reasonable squad to work with, but it will be a big surprise if the team challenges for a top spot. The loss of David Revivo to Hapoel Beersheba is a significant blow. Nevertheless, it is very unlikely Ashdod will be fighting against relegation, meaning the team is set for another season of mediocrity. Player to watch out for: Rahamim Tzukul. The 20-year-old midfielder grew up in the Ashdod youth department and should be a regular starter this season. Last season: 8th place (10 wins - 8 draws - 15 losses), 38 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: Ashdod manages to sneak into the top six. Worst case: A poor finish to the season sees Ashdod drop into the bottom six. BNEI SAKHNIN Coach Eran Kulik made sure the club avoided relegation last season and after being rewarded with a contract extension will be aiming for a top half finish in the coming term. Sakhnin held on to the core of its squad and, despite only signing a couple of new foreigners, will be an extremely tough side to defeat this season. Teams have always dreaded visiting the Doha Stadium and that is not about to change. Player to watch out for: Ali Ottman. The 22-year-old has set his sights on becoming the best right-back in Israeli soccer and he is not far off. Last season: 9th place (7 wins - 12 draws - 14 losses), 33 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 1 (2004) Best case: Sakhnin gets off to a good start and has a quiet season in the top-half of the standings. Worst case: Sakhnin gets off to a poor start and once again battles against relegation until the final weeks of the season. HAPOEL PETAH TIKVA The once illustrious club is still dreaming of returning to its former glory, but sadly that will not be the case this season. First-year coach Danny Niron will need to work miracles with his squad if it is to avoid a bottom six finish, even though new chairman Danny Levy had the nerve to promise that his team will end the season among the league's top three. Player to watch out for: Elnatan Salami. The 23-year-old striker should get plenty of opportunities this season and is entering the league campaign on fire after scoring three times in three Toto Cup matches. Last season: 10th place (8 wins - 7 draws - 18 losses), 31 points. Titles: Championships - 6: (1954\5, 1958\9, 1959\60, 1960\1, 1961\2, 1962\3). State Cups - 2 (1957, 1992) Best case: Niron has a quiet season and Petah Tikva avoids a bottom six finish securing another season of Premier League soccer before the end of the season. Worst case: The coach doesn't even make it to 2010 and Petah Tikva is back in the National League after two seasons. HAPOEL HAIFA Last season's National League champion is back in the top-flight after four seasons away and is hoping to cement is place as a legitimate Premier League club. Promising coach Shlomi Dora will have to cope with a mediocre squad, but considering six clubs were promoted from the National League last season, there is no reason why Haifa should fail to maintain its Premier League status. Player to watch out for: Eran Levy. The 24-year-old forward has finally got his chance to prove his worth in the Premier League and his powerful left-footed strikes will be a delight to watch. Last season: 1st place National League (17 wins - 11 draws - 5 losses), 62 points. Titles: Championships - 1: (1998\9). State Cups - 3 (1963, 1966, 1974) Best case: Dora's men win at least one derby match and finish nowhere near the bottom. Worst case: The green side of Haifa celebrates with a double over their red rivals, who end up only avoiding relegation in the final week of the season. HAPOEL ACRE It has taken Acre 32 years to return to the Premier League and no one will be surprised if it finds itself back in the National League after just one season. Hapoel finished in a surprise second position in the National League last season, but hasn't really strengthened its squad and will be hosting its matches at Upper Nazareth because it has no suitable stadium in the city. Player to watch out for: Roei Dayan. The 24-year-old striker was supposed to make his Premier League breakthrough long ago and will be getting what might prove to be his final chance in Acre. Last season: 2nd place National League (17 wins - 10 draws - 6 losses), 61 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: Acre avoids relegation at the last moment Worst case: No home stadium, means no Premier League soccer for Acre next season. HAPOEL BEERSHEBA Beersheba could only manage a third place finish in the National League last season, but seems to be better equipped for the Premier League than all the other newly promoted teams. Former Maccabi Petah Tikva coach Guy Azuri replaced Guy Levy at the helm and has built an impressive squad with some promising signings. Former Betar goalkeeper Tvrtko Kale, striker Lior Asulin and midfielder David Revivo all joined the club and, together with the core of last season's squad, Azuri has real reason for optimism. Player to watch out for: Maor Melikson. The 24-year-old, who was once regarded as one of Israeli soccer's most promising midfielders, moved to Beersheba last season to resurrect his career and will want to make the most of being back in the spotlight. Last season: 3rd place National League (16 wins - 11 draws - 6 losses), 59 points. Titles: Championships - 2 (1974/75, 1975/76), State Cups - 1 (1997) Best case: Beersheba's loyal fans fill the stadium to see the team challenging for a place in Europe. Worst case: Beersheba's impatient fans call for Azuri's head after just five matches and get their wish soon after. HAPOEL RAMAT GAN Ramat Gan only finished in fourth place in the National League last season, but thanks to the change in format gained automatic promotion. It is, however, difficult to see the team doing any better than a place in the bottom six, especially as it will be playing its home matches away from home at Winter Stadium, the home of Hakoach Ramat Gan. Player to watch out for: Omer Peretz. The 23-year-old was part of Israel's Under-21 team which reached the European Championships, but his career has failed to take off, at least until this season. Last season: 4th place National League (14 wins - 11 draws - 8 losses), 53 points. Titles: Championships - 1 (1963/64), State Cups - 1 (2003) Best case: Hapoel Acre and Hapoel Ra'anana prove to be worse than Ramat Gan and the team survives. Worst case: No one is worse than Ramat Gan and it is relegated after finishing in last position. HAPOEL RA'ANANA Ra'anana will be making its top-flight debut this season after finishing fifth in the National League. It wasn't that long ago that the small team played in the amateur leagues, but it will now need to hold its own against the big boys if it has any intention of maintaining its Premier League status. Besides having the smallest budget in the league, Ra'anana will also need to overcome the fact that it will be playing its home matches in Kfar Saba. Player to watch out for: Cristiano Dos Santos. The 27-year-old Brazilian was Ra'anana's main offensive threat last season and will be key to the team's success in the coming campaign. Last season: 5th place National League (15 wins - 6 draws - 12 losses), 51 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: Ra'anana surprises everyone and avoids relegation in the last week of the season. Worst case: Ra'anana is all but relegated midway through the campaign. AHI NAZARETH Eli Mahpud's team was promoted after defeating Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan in the promotion playoff. The former Hapoel Petah Tikva coach has brought in several experienced players, including 34-year-old Russian goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin and 32-year-old defender Ismail Amar, and will confident of his team's chances of staying up. Player to watch out for: Tomer Hemed. The 22-year-old striker came through the Maccabi Haifa youth system and is overdue a breakthrough season. Last season: 6th place National League (12 wins - 9 draws - 12 losses), 45 points. Titles: Championships - 0, State Cups - 0 Best case: Nazareth avoids the pressure of the relegation battle thanks to a good start to the season. Worst case: Nazareth never gets out of the bottom three following a bad start.