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Like a Roberto Carlos free kick, Israel shot up to 18th position in the annual UEFA rankings which were published yesterday.

The spectacular eight-place rise was the most noteworthy of all the 52 nations who are members of UEFA and means that for next season Israel will have a fourth representative in European competition.

European soccer's governing body issued its latest coefficient ranking list yesterday. It is based on performances over the last five years.

The improved ranking is of little significance for the team which will be crowned as Israeli league champions at the end of the current season, as although it is confirmed to start from the second qualifying round in the Champions League, Maccabi Haifa already had the same luxury this season.

Still, Maccabi Haifa's historic qualification for the Champions League group stage, which did not have a bearing on the coefficient ranking for this year, should help for next year's ranking, when Israel is expected to rise still further and could earn two places in Champions League qualifying competition.

In such a case the league champion would start from the third qualifying round and the runner up from the second round.

As for the three UEFA Cup participants next season, their involvement in the competition is not yet known because the entire tournament format is under review.

Spain, Italy and England stay top

Spain, Italy and England will again be entitled to enter four teams in next season's Champions League, while this year's Portuguese champions will gain automatic access to the group stage.

Spain, which has dominated the competition in recent seasons, lead the way, ahead of Italy, England, Germany, France, Greece and the Netherlands.

The top three will be entitled to enter their domestic champions and runners-up into the Champions League, with the third and fourth-placed teams going into the third qualifying round.

Greece, for the first time, joins Germany and France in having three entries, with the Netherlands losing a slot and dropping to two.

Portugal's automatic entry to the group stage comes at the expense of 10th-placed Russia, whom they have leapfrogged in the rankings. But Russia could still get an automatic entrant, depending on who wins the final at Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium next May.

Next season's Champions League will have a new format, with a 32-team single group phase followed by a 16-team knockout phase.

European soccer's governing body said the access list for next season's UEFA Cup would not be announced until a decision was taken on the competition's future format.

Discussions over a new format are ongoing between UEFA and Europe's major clubs within the newly formed European Club Forum. A decision is expected in December.

Mac. Haifa fined

Maccabi Haifa was made to pay a heavy price for the rowdiness of some of its supporters when UEFA slapped a fine of 30,000 Swiss francs (about NIS 100,000) on the club yesterday.

The UEFA observer at the match wrote in his report that the Haifa supporters threw paper rolls and other objects at the players of Bayer Leverkusen before and during the Champions League home clash in Nicosia on October 1 in a way that endangered the German players' safety.

Haifa knew they would receive punishment, but they did not expect such a heavy fine.

"I hope the crowd learns a lesson from this," said Itamar Chizik, the club's general manager yesterday. "It's a pity the reputation of our supporters has been tarnished by a small group, " he continued.

Raimondas Zutautas returned from his native Lithuania to Haifa yesterday where it was discovered he is suffering from a thigh injury that will keep him out of action for a few days. He is hoping to be fit for the weekend league clash against Ashdod SC and then to be ready for next Wednesday's clash against Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Haifa will at least be relieved to hear they will not have to face Olympiakos' Brazilian midfielder Ze Elias, who was sent off against Manchester United. He received a three-match ban which will see him miss the remaining group matches, including the clash against Haifa in Athens on November 13.