After seven rounds of games, this Premier League season has certainly not disappointed thus far. The fans are returning to the stadiums, the level of play in most games has been relatively high, there is tension, surprises, lots of interest in both ends of the table and a balanced league with no teams blatantly superior or inferior to the others.
The downside has been that these seven rounds have been spread over nearly three months, due to national team games and the Israel Football Association's lack of foresight, leaving the league to suffer from a lack of continuity, to the chagrin of fans and players alike. But as of next weekend, the national team games will be played regularly through to March.
The most interesting game of this round will be at the Kiryat Eliezer stadium today, where the season's greatest underachiever, Maccabi Haifa, will host the slightly less disappointing Bnei Yehuda. On the Haifa sidelines will stand coach Reuven Atar, the fans' idol for the past 25 years, for what could be the last time.
Atar has been working with the team for four months, yet it appears he has not yet found the formula to make the most of his squad's considerable potential. In terms of his game plan, Atar is consistent: Notwithstanding the barrage of criticism that has come his way since the campaign began, he has diligently stuck to the 4-3-3 formation that worked so well at his previous club, Maccabi Netanya. His lack of flexibility in this sense has proved expensive.
On the other hand, when it comes to picking his players, Atar is second in terms of zigzagging only to Shaul Mofaz. One week a player performs for 90 minutes, the next week he's not even in the squad. The lineup is constantly changing, and the results reflect this instability. There will probably also be changes in the lineup that faces Bnei Yehuda. Avihai Yadin will for the first time this season play in his natural position, replacing Joel Damahou in the defensive midfielder's role. Eyal Golasa will probably also return, Chen Ezra will push further forward and Yaniv Katan will again lead the team.
But the personalities are less important. The question is whether Haifa's players, having accepted that the team will not reckon in the hunt for trophies this season, will be able to shed the pressure and play more free, open yet determined soccer.
Bnei Yehuda and its coach Dror Kashtan are already under a lot of pressure. Having miraculously rescued a point at Bnei Sakhnin and lost at home to Beitar Jerusalem, another loss would leave the team languishing near the bottom of the league - and possibly the end of Kashtan's long career as a soccer coach. A tight, low-scoring tactical game can be expected, with the team that pounces on the few scoring chances ending up the winner.
Another intriguing game will be the improving Beitar Jerusalem at home to inconsistent Ramat Hasharon. The Jerusalemites played excellently against Hapoel Tel Aviv last week (irrespective of the scandalous refereeing ), especially in the second half, and the home fans are an extra boost. Beitar's midfield and forward line are undoubtably the best in the league. The question is whether the team can extend its successful run without losing its concentration on teamwork.
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