Long-awaited campaign kickoff arrives
Hapoel Beersheba’s Elyaniv Barda (R) and Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Shay Abutbul.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Premier League finally ready to start after multiple war-related postponements; Beitar opens at Beersheba.
The Premier League finally gets underway on Saturday after a three-week delay due to the security situation.Hapoel Tel Aviv hosts Maccabi Netanya at Bloomfield Stadium in the first match of the season, with four more games to take place on Saturday.After finishing in the runners-up position last season, Hapoel Beersheba hopes to begin a new charge for the title when it hosts Beitar Jerusalem at Vasermil Stadium, while Ironi Kiryat Shmona visits Ashdod SC, Hapoel Acre welcomes Hapoel Haifa and Hapoel Ra’anana faces Hapoel Petah Tikva.Two-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Maccabi Petah Tikva on Sunday, with Maccabi Haifa hosting Bnei Sakhnin in its first ever match at the new Sammy Ofer Stadium on Monday. Haifa and Beersheba are expected to be Maccabi Tel Aviv’s main rivals for the championship, with the yellow-and-blue aiming to become just the second team in the past 50 years to claim three consecutive titles.After being Maccabi Tel Aviv’s only challenger last season, Beersheba has held on to the core of its squad while adding Israel internationals Maor Melikson and Shlomi Arbeitman and bringing in Nigerian midfielder John Ogu. It also agreed to a deal with Romanian midfielder Ovidiu Hoban on Thursday. However, Beersheba will be entering Saturday’s match against Beitar in a far from ideal situation, with Melikson and Arbeitman missing through injury and the team failing to win any of its four Toto Cup matches this summer, recording three draws and one defeat.“We have been waiting for this match, we have finally reached the real thing,” said Beersheba coach Elisha Levy, who is entering his third season with the club.“I hope we can change the momentum and get the season off to a winning start.There is no reason for us to feel under pressure as we haven’t even lost a league game yet. We learned a lot from the Toto Cup matches and we experienced a tough summer with the war. That hurt us, but all that matters now is our first match and I’m sure things will be different against Beitar.”Levy believes last season’s experience will prove very valuable in the upcoming campaign.“We became a legitimate title contender last season,” Levy noted. “We feel we are part of a group which includes Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa - with Kiryat Shmona also a very strong side - and we want to make sure we remain close to them.”Beitar will have a very different look this season, with new coach Menahem Koretzki to make his league debut on Saturday.The club overhauled its squad, bringing in among others, goalkeeper Boris Kleyman, midfielder Hanan Maman and Montenegrin striker Zarko Korac.Beitar claimed an impressive 3-0 win at Beersheba in Toto Cup action two weeks ago and Koretzki is in a confident mood entering the season.“I think we have real quality in our squad and I hope we see that on Saturday,” he said. “I’m very excited to be guiding Beitar for the first time. Playing Beersheba on the road is one of the toughest matches of the season, but I hope we will return with all three points.”After a tumultuous summer, Hapoel Tel Aviv enters Saturday’s encounter against Netanya in a surprisingly upbeat mood.New general manager Eyal Berkovic managed to put together a relatively strong squad with a meager budget following the departure of part-owner Ido Hagag.Sari Falah and Shlomi Azulay joined the team from Maccabi Haifa earlier this week, with goalkeeper Danny Amos, Shay Abutbul, Israel Zaguri and Gili Vermut all back for another season.Maccabi Netanya, which is back in the top-flight after one season in the National League, signed former Beitar goalkeeper and Israel international Ariel Harush last week, but it is first and foremost hoping to avoid a return to the second division.“Some fans think we are going to win the championship, but I know what it is like coaching a team in its first season back in the top flight and we will face great difficulties just to survive,” said coach Yossi Mizrahi.