Thursday, October 09, 2008

League Of The Week: Israel / Premier League

Greetings football lovers and welcome to another League of the Week, this week focusing on the Israeli Premier League or Ligat Al, as it's often known.

Israel's top division consists of twelve teams, all of whom are situated in the northern half of the country. Number 1 on the list is Beitar Jerusalem, league champions for the last two seasons, six-time winners overall and current holders of the State Cup (Israel's 'FA Cup', if you will).

Impressive, you may think, but this season Beitar are finding it very difficult to maintain the high standards that saw them cruise to victory by a full nine points in the league last time around. So far in 2008/09, they find themselves struggling down in ninth spot in the IPL and are already out of the Champions League having lost 6-2 on aggregate to Wisla Krakow in the second qualifying round.

It's been a long time since Beitar have had anything amounting to European success, their last significant achievements being to reach the UEFA Cup First Round in 1998 and 1999 where they were knocked out by Club Brugge and Everton respectively. Given their current form, it may be a while before they take on the might of Europe again.

For a likely successor to Beitar's throne, look no further than Maccabi Netanya. Led by former German World Cup star Lothar Matthaus, they ended last season as runners-up to Beitar and have already started this season well, leading the IPL table by two points.

Sadly they, like all the other Israeli teams that qualified for European competition this season, have already been knocked out, so it's back to domestic duties once again. In the Israeli Premier League, there's a complicated system where the season is split into three 'rounds', the last being based on how well you did in the first two traditional 'home and away' exchanges with the other teams.

While we try to get our heads round the complexities of that, be aware that the IPL also enforces a limit of five foreign players for each team. Whether that will improve the quality of the Israeli national side in years to come remains to be seen.

So what of this season so far? We know that Maccabi Netanya lead the way with five games played, but what of the other runners and riders?

Well the surprise package so far must be Maccabi Petah Tikva who were promoted at the end of last season following their second place finish in the Liga Leumit (the equivalent of The Championship in England). They're currently fourth in the table and have only lost one game so far, plus they have the league's current top scorer in the form of Shimon Abuhatzira.

Petah Tikva will no doubt be feeling somewhat superior to the team that pipped them to the Liga Leumit title last season, Hakoah Ramat Gan, who are yet to win a game in 2008/09. Next week sees them travel to Maccabi Tel Aviv, currently third in the table and the only team never to have dropped out of the Israeli top flight. They're also the team that's won the most Israeli championships - a whopping 19, the last of which was in 2003.

Maccabi Haifa just missed out on a European spot last year but are currently second in the league, just two points behind Maccabi Netanya. Like them, Haifa are still unbeaten so far this season and may do well thanks to the goalscoring exploits of Dekel Keinan and Yaniv Katan, the striker that made six appearances for West Ham back in 2006.

Currently languishing in the two relegation spots are Bnei Sakhnin and Bnei Yehuda. Sakhnin have been a bit of a yo-yo team in recent seasons but have shown a fighting spirit at times, even winning a place in the UEFA Cup in 2004 where they were knocked out in the early stages by Newcastle United.

Yehuda have also found it difficult retaining their place in the top flight and have only ever won the Israeli championship once, back in 1990. They were relegated to the Liga Leumit in 2001 but came straight back up the following season where they've remained ever since. On current form, however, don't be surprised if either team ends up relegated or at best entering a relegation play-off.

FC Ashdod are somewhat of a curiosity. A team that usually scrapes by on limited funds, they always seem to get by unspectacularly while at the same time providing some of the IPL's top goalscorers. They’re currently eighth in the table which is where they ended up at the close of play last season.

Finally there's Ironi Kiryat Shmona, third last season and fifth at the moment. You can look upon them as the Israeli equivalent of Chelsea in some ways. They play in blue shirts, blue shorts and white socks, they were considered an ordinary club until a wealthy businessman recently ploughed his Sheqels into it and… well that's about it really. Still, they're a club that's going places, as is Israeli football generally, we think.

And on that positive note, let's draw a line under the Israeli Premier League but don't forget, if you want us to feature a country and its league in one of our future articles, leave us a comment. We'll do our best to accommodate your every whim...

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