The Israel National Football Team plays Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday night in a crucial UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying matchup which may determine Israel’s fortunes going forward in the 2nd most prestigious football tournament in the world just behind the FIFA World Cup.
After taking nine out of a maximum 15 points in the first five matches, but none over their last two games it will be imperative for Israel to get a result in Zenica. However this will be a tall task playing at Bilino Polje Stadium that holds approximately 15K supporters who will be on top of the action, nothing like their away matches in Cyprus and Andorra. The atmosphere and pressure Israel will be facing against Bosnia under new coach Mehmed Bazdarevic could be the make it or break it point for the side.
For the first time the Euro tourney will consist of 24 teams, 8 more than in past competitions allowing for third place teams in the group stages to advance to a playoff or directly to the event being held in France. With the addition of more teams, hopes are high for Israel to make an impression on the grand stage and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players will be central for this to happen.
The Yellow-and-Blue will have six representatives wearing the Blue-and-White at the end of the week. This includes Israel captain and central defender Tal Ben Haim who just signed with the club, Omri Ben Harush, Eitan Tibi, winger Tal Ben Chaim, first-timer Dor Micha & superstar Eran Zahavi who just extended his contract. If we count outgoing Maccabi captain Sheran Yeini there will be seven reps playing for Israel! WOW!
Ben Haim has been a rock on defense for the National team and his leadership will be tested against some of the most lethal strikers in the game today, Edin Dzeko. He’ll have to not only cover his position to ensure that Bosnia can’t get off high percentage shots but will also have to keep his side focussed throughout the full 90 minutes of action. Yeini will have to mark and cut off some of the Bosnia attacks coming down the flanks as he has done many times before while on National Team duty. A couple of years ago his terrific work on Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal was the difference in Israel taking home a point or going home empty handed.
Ben Harush could see action as either a central defender should National Team coach Eli Gutman decide to go with 5 in the back or we may see him in his traditional position opposite Yeini. His long passes and ability to get up and down the pitch in a jiffy will prove to be most important should Israel want to send its attack down the sides. Tibi may see action off of the bench for Israel and could be an important contributor should the National Team take a lead.
Gutman may have to really think about who he will need to play on offense for Israel as youngster Micha will be making his first appearance for the full National Team and could provide a much needed spark. After two scoreless efforts in losses to Wales and Belgium, Gutman may be forced to change it up a bit and find a way to put the ball into the back of the goal. This may also play in favor of Tal Ben Chaim getting a chance to strut his stuff as he was able to provide Israel a number of chances against Belgium when he came on in the second half.
Last but definitely not least is Eran Zahavi. Coming off a 27 goal year this past season, Zahavi is head and shoulders above all of the other domestic based Israeli players almost scoring at will and dominating matches in only the way he can. He pinpoint accuracy and “nose for the goal” make him a linchpin in the Israel offense. However, even Zahavi was stymied the last two matches and will have to regain his form in order to help his side triumph over a struggling Bosnia thus far in the tournament.
This match will not only be a make it or potentially break it game for Israel, but it will definitely be a break it match for Bosnia should they not collect 3-points. Israel, knowing this fact will have to be ready for wave after wave of attacks by the home side and will need to be responsible on defense like never before. This may be why Gutman will end up playing 5 in the back to make sure they can use an organized defensive scheme to make sure no balls get through for a high percentage chance.
And this leads us to yet another area of concern, the goalkeeper position. Ofir Marchiano has played solidly for Israel, however his domestic club, Ashdod has been relegated with the young ‘keeper giving up many goals. The other candidate that has been bandied about to start has been Ariel Harush who just side for rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv. Harush had been the National Team ‘keeper in the past until he lost the starting job to Marchiano at the beginning of this campaign. The outsider of the goalkeeping corps is former Maccabi Tel Aviv property Guy Haimov who has yet to start a game for Israel.
The other key players will be CSKA Moscow midfielder Bibras Natcho and Celtic’s Nir Bitton who performed admirably in the last two matches for Israel and celebrated the Scottish League Championship last month. Along with strongman central defender Rami Geshon of Belgium title holders Gent, Israel seem to be in decent shape to pull a surprise out of the hat this coming Friday.
Coach Gutman will have the unenviable task of finding the winning combination and try to piece together players that don’t play with each other on a regular basis. This is ultimately the greatest challenge that our National Team has.
At the end of the day it would be only fitting for the Treble winning players of Maccabi Tel Aviv to lead the way for Israel, positively impact the team and send them to the promised land, a berth in a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.