After a three-month layoff, domestic football is back! We've been treated to two great Cup Finals to open this season with Shabab Al-Dhahrieh beating league champions Hilal Al-Quds in the Super Cup and Al-Am'ary returning to its title-winning ways with a 3-1 Yasser Arafat Cup win over Balata.
With the league expanding once again to 12 teams, this season promises to be even more competitive with ambitious sides like Islami Qalqilya and Ahli Al-Khaleel looking to punch above its weight. So who will win the league this year? And who will be going down? First a preview of the eight teams that managed to stay up last year. With a second part later this week assessing new boys Ahli Al-Khalil, Hilal Jericho, Islami Qalqilya, and Jenin.
Our predictions after the jump....
Hilal Al-Quds (HAQ):
IN: Roberto Kettlun (MF/Brindisi/ITA), Ahmad Abu Attieh (DF/Al-Jazira/JOR), Fahed Al-Fakhuri (GK/Thaqafi Tulkarem), Saed Abu Saleem (GK/Balata), Ayman El-Khatib (DF/Hapoel Umm El-Fahm/ISR)
OUT: Salah Zabaidi (MF/Ahli Al-Khaleel), Ehab Abujazr (DF/Shabab Rafah), Fadi Lafi (FW/Al-Jazira/JOR), Abdullah Saidawi (GK/Al-Am'ary), Shadi Allan (MF, Ahli Al-Khaleel)
Last Year: Champions
FP's take: Hilal are a veteran team that is trying to win whilst revitalizing an aging squad. Club captain Fadi Lafi returned to the Jordanian Premier League in the offseason and Abdullah Saidawi ended a 13-year career with the club. To replace Saidawi, Hilal Al-Quds brought in two starting WBPL keepers to fill the void but failed to court additional attackers to help Murad Alyan preferring to hand the reins over to Mohammed Khweis. It is often said that winning back-to-back championship is the hardest thing to do in team sports. It's become easier to do in the era of big-spending but the WBPL's parity means that maxim holds true.
Shabab Al-Khaleel (SAK):
IN: Abdelhamid Abuhabib (MF/Balata), Atef Abu Bilal (MF/Shabab Al-Dhahrieh), Khalil Abujazr (DF/Merkaz Qalandiya)
OUT: Adham Hadiya (MF/Maccabi Ahi Nazareth/ISR), Bashar Al-Sayed (DF/Ahli Al-Khaleel), Ayman Alhendi (MF/Sporting Gaza)
Last Year: 2nd
FP's take: Shabab Al-Khaleel's problem last season was a lack of midfield creativity which really did in a team with the best defensive record in the league. Fahed Attal and Eyad Abugharqud were often needed to create and finish chances on their own, a big reason why the team only tallied 27 goals in 18 games last season. The black and whites have addressed these problems by adding a speedster in Atef Abu Bilal to complement Mohammed Jamal on the other wing. Pulling the strings in the middle will be the brightest prospect in Palestinian football- Abdelhamid Abuhabib- who will be charged with setting the pace of the team. With their weakness now addressed- is there anything that can stop the big spenders from Hebron from taking the title?
Shabab Al-Dhahrieh (SAD):
IN: Kamel Jebareen (DF/Jabal Al-Mukaber), Amir Elafneesh (FW/Hapoel Rahat/ISR), Khaled Al-Turi (FW/Shabab Rahat/ISR), Nour Abu Jaleel (FW/Hapoel Shefa-Amr/ISR), Khaled Me'ary (MF/Hapoel Shefa-Amr/ISR), Ghanem Mahajneh (GK/Umm El-Fahm/ISR), Mahmoud Jabr (MF/Maccabi Kfar Kana), Amir Dhiyab (FW/Ahli Umm EL-Fahm/ISR)
OUT: Khalil Al-Sane', Mohammed Al-Masri (both retired), Atef Abu Bilal (MF/Shabab Al-Khaleel)
Last Year: 3rd
FP's take: It has been an offseason of change for the Oryxes of the South- their talisman and top-scorer now plays for rivals Shabab Al-Khaleel. The club captain, Khalil Al-Sane' has followed Mohammed Al-Masri and retired as well, leaving Al-Dhahrieh with a leadership void. Can the Oryxes win this season? A lot will depend on how quickly this team can gel. Most their signings come from inside the Green Line and not a lot is known about them. They have made an astute signing in Ghanem Mahajneh, the 21 year-old goalkeeper has already played for the Olympic side and has his sights set on a place with the first team. His performance in preserving Shabab Al-Dhahrieh's lead against Hilal Al-Quds in the SuperCup will only help his cause.
Tarji Wadi Al-Nes (TWN):
IN: Said Al-Sobakhi (FW/moved permanently from Sporting Gaza), Salah Hendi (MF/Jorat Al-Sham'a), Arafat Sabih (MF/Shabab Al-Khaleel)
OUT: Ashraf Nu'man (AM/Al-Faisaly/JOR), Ghassan Ali (GK/Shabab Al-Khadr)
Last Year: 4th
FP's take: Tarji Wadi Al-Nes has a great youth set-up and unlike other clubs who splash the cash they are content to let the boys from this tiny village near Bethlehem strut their stuff. It's been a successful formula that resulted in them winning the 2008/09 league, the 2009/10 FA Cup, the 2010 SuperCup, and the inaugural edition of the Yasser Arafat Cup. Success has not come easily since then but Tarji Wadi Al-Nes has been able to hold their own. The team did well to finish fourth last year but without top-scorer Ashraf Nu'man a slip has to be expected. Said Al-Sobakhi provided the team with a boost in the second half of last season and will be relied on for goals this season.
Merkaz Shabab Al-Am'ary (MSA):
IN: Adham Arar (MF/Hilal Jericho), Jamal Allan (FW/Al-Bireh), Abdullah Al-Saidawi (GK/Hilal Al-Quds), Houssam Wadi (DM/Ittihad Shajeya), Ahmad Al-Laham (MF/Balata), Hussein Johar (DF/Jabal Al-Mukaber), Nour Awdeh (MF/Maccabi Kfar Kana/ISR), Hamza Al-Zu'bi (DF/Ironi Kiryat Shmona/ISR), Ali Adawi (FW/Maccabi Haifa/ISR)
OUT: Ismail Amour (MF/Yarmouk/JOR), Mohammed Al-Salman (DF/Beit Laqya), Ahmed Harbi (DF/Maccabi Umm El-Fahm), Muntaser Adel (MF/Beit Laqya), Muayed Saleem, Ehsan Sadeq (both retired), Assem Abu Assi (GK/Sporting Gaza), Hazem Al-Reikhawy (Ahli Al-Khaleel)
Last Year: 5th
FP's take: By far the hardest team to handicap. It was only two years ago when this side swept all before it en-route to winning the title. Last year was tough with a bright start giving way to a train wreck of a season. After a couple of coaching changes, Al-Am'ary have decided to rebuild the squad. The lure of higher wages lured Ahmed Harbi and Ismail Amour two of the team's most consistent performers. Al-Am'ary are noticeably stronger between the pipes with National Team goalkeeper Abdullah Saidawi joining the ranks. The rest of the reinforcement are interesting- albeit mysterious- players. Ali Adawi was once an Israel U-18 international who made his name by scoring a hattrick against Beitar Jerusalem's youth side. Also joining up is Hamza Al-Zu'bi a pacy right back who was part of Ironi Kiryat Shmona's title winning team last year. If Al-Zu'bi can effectively replace Harbi and Adawi settles into life WBPL Al-Am'ary could be a force to be reckoned with. If not, then they'll probably have to make do with a mid-table finish. The WBPL may not even be the team's priority this year with the final stages of the AFC President's Cup offering Al-Am'ary and Palestine a shot at continental silverware.
Merkaz Balata (BAL):
IN: Amr Muhamid (GK/Maccabi Umm El-Fahm/ISR), Alaa Yameen (DF/Islami Qalqilya), Wasim Aqab (DF/Al-Bireh), Bakri Al-Bakri (MF/Al-Bireh), Qasem Muhamid (FW/Maccabi Umm El-Fahm/ISR), Mohammed Al-Ghafri (FW/Betello)
OUT: Abdelhamid Abuhabib (MF/Shabab Al-Khaleel), Saed Abu Saleem (GK/Hilal Al-Quds) Mohammed Al-Laham (DF/Al-Am'ary), Hamudeh Bishara (DF/Jenin), Ahmad Mahasna (MF/Merkaz Tulkarem)
Last Year: 6th
FP's take: Abelhamid Abuhabib was the key force in getting Balata to the top flight and ensuring top table finishes over the past two seasons. His absence will be felt but there is enough competence in this squad to keep the club out of a relegation battle.
Jabal Al-Mukaber (JAM):
IN: Thaer Fahmawi (FW/Nour Shams), Mahmoud Tafesh (DF/Coastal Services) Ibrahim Wadi (MF/Ittihad Shajeya), Yahya Badra (MF/Ahli Qalqilya), Wasim Aghbareya (DF/Shabab Jenin), Saleh Haj (DF/Maccabi Umm El-Fahm)
OUT: Kamel Jebareen (DF/Shabab Al-Dhahrieh) Bahaa Dhiyab (GK/Ahli Al-Khaleel), Rami Musalmeh (FW/Shabab Al-Khadr)
Last Year: 7th
FP's take: Yet another team in flux. Losing Kamel Jebareen is less than ideal but his absence might be mitigate for if one of the new signings pans out. If this team finds stability they will be difficult to play against, if not then they might end up as relegation fodder.
Al-Bireh Institute (BIR)
IN: Anas Khalailah (MF/Kfar Manda/ISR), Nidal Taha, Islam Mohammed (both: MF/Maccabi Kfar Kana/ISR), Yousef Hijazi (DF/Tamra/Israel), Mohammed Eghbariyeh, (DF/Kfar Qara/ISR), Mohammed Awad (FW/Kfar Qara/ISR)
OUT: Jamal Allan (FW/Al-Am'ary), Wasim Aqab (MF/Balata), Bakri Al-Bakri (MF/Balata)
Last Year: 8th
2012/13: 11th (relegation)
FP's take: This is a team that tries its upmost to get relegated every season yet somehow gets outdone by another team's epic slump. Their preparation for this season is less than ideal, star player Jamal Allan now playing for cross town rivals Al-Am'ary and fellow starters Aqab and Al-Bakri are now in Nablus. The team was dealt a further blow by the sudden death of up and coming goalkeeper Majd Amin. Al-Bireh's front office has signed a host of unknown players from across the Green Line. It could be a stroke of genius on the part of the scouting department or it could be a disastrous failure- in any case a relegation fight beckons.