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Rumors that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich could buy a stake in Hapoel Tel Aviv are still floating around Bloomfield Stadium after the Russian oil and metals magnate's recent visit, but Maccabi Tel Aviv could yet beat its cross town rival to the post in luring an investment from Russian oligarchs.

Leonid Nevzlin, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov all appeared on the Forbes magazine list of the world's billionaires in 2004, are all wanted in Russia on fraud charges and all reside in Israel.

The three are directors of Group Menatep, a holding company that owns 60 percent of what remains of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's dismantled Yukos empire.

Nevzlin is the wealthiest of the three and is a sworn enemy of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday they were said to be considering buying a holding in Maccabi Tel Aviv or providing outside financial support to the club.

Maccabi has has a disastrous domestic season. After winning the title two years ago and coming in second last year, it has slid to eighth place in the Premier League. The club's only chance of qualifying for European competition is via the State Cup, where it faces Maccabi Petah Tikva in the semifinals today.

Maccabi owner Loni Herzikovic has said that the club's budget for next season will stand at NIS 26 million - a sum that will make it difficult for coach Nir Klinger to put together a squad capable of threatening back-to-back champion Maccabi Haifa's stranglehold over the league.

However, in recent months businessmen close to the club, including David Federman, the co-owner of Maccabi Tel Aviv Basktball Club, have been making efforts to bring fresh blood to the club alongside Herzikovic in order to up its budget to NIS 40 million. Among those mentioned as possible investors in the club are Nevzlin, Bruno and Dubov.

Herzikovic, who has made several visits to Moscow in recent months, has said that several investors have expressed an interest in the club, but until now no deal has been closed.