Haifa and Hapoel set pace in Israel

JERUSALEM - The new Israeli season kicks off this weekend with an expanded format of 16 clubs although form suggests the title contenders won't change.

Champions Maccabi Haifa seem to have invested wisely in a balanced squad and appear destined to retain their crown, perhaps being pushed only by Hapoel Tel Aviv who have bolstered their side with some fortuitous local acquisitions.

The global economic slowdown took its toll on a number of clubs last season as some investors pulled out - notably Arkady Gaydamak from Beitar Jerusalem, Alex Shnaider from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Daniel Jammer from Maccabi Netanya.

Gaydamak's departure from Beitar almost led to the champions in the two previous seasons going into liquidation before a "white knight", Brazilian tycoon Guma Aguiar, saved the club.

Many of the players at Beitar, which had been Israel's richest outfit until Russian-born Gaydamak withdrew his support, agreed to take major salary cuts, meaning the team is at least a dark horse in the title race.

Netanya are less likely to return to the upper reaches of the top flight following Jammer's withdrawal which also saw former coach Lothar Matthaeus depart earlier last season.

It allowed Hapoel Tel Aviv to pick up striker Itai Shechter and defender Dedi Ben Dayan cheaply and means Haifa and Hapoel are again the most likely teams to vie for top honours.

Haifa's Yaakov Shahar, probably the shrewdest and most cautious of Israeli club owners, said he would not increase his outlay even if they make the Champions League group stage.

The club has so far imported only one significant new face - Georgian striker Vladimir Dabashvili - but media reports said Shahar may reconsider his decision if Haifa do reach the group stage for the second time.

They won 2-1 at FC Salzburg of Austria in the first leg of the final playoff round on Wednesday.

Shnaider handed control of Maccabi Tel Aviv to fellow Canadian investor Mitchell Goldhar but their young squad, playing at a club that has so often failed to live up to its potential, appears likely to again underachieve.

The new 16-team format - increased from 12 last season - will see each side play their opponents home and away. The table will then be divided into three playoff sections the Israeli FA says will provide more season-ending thrills.

The top six will play each other once in the title race, the bottom six will similarly compete to avoid relegation and the four teams in the middle will play for position and added cash.

To increase competitiveness, all teams' points totals will be cut in half at the start of the playoff round.

The expanded format brings clubs from Israel's north and south to the top flight with Hapoel Acre in the north and Hapoel Beersheba in the south plus Ahi Nazareth, a second Arab club.