Eli Gutman, the Israel National team coach may look back at the end of the Euro 2016 campaign wondering what would have been should he have secured one point against 10-man Belgium at home. The same way that Avram Grant picked up only one point instead of three against 10-man France in March 2005 when he had them on the ropes at home and cost his side a chance at going to the World Cup in Germany.
But that’s the way the cookie crumbles at times. Missed opportunities and this was one of them.
With Belgium captain Vincent Kompany out after collecting two yellow cards resulting in a red card in the 64th minute and Chelsea star Eden Hazard off the pitch being subbed out a minute before the red card due to tiredness as per Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, this was the chance for Israel to steal a hard earned point against the FIFA 4th ranked team in the world. But it was not to be.
By Gutman subbing out Tomer Hemed at halftime and bringing in Tal Ben Chaim, the front 3rd of the pitch opened up for Eran Zahavi and Ben Sahar who both began to have solid opportunities against world class keeper Thibaut Courtois. Zahavi struggled in the first half getting very little space from Belgium to operate and also turned over the ball a number of times. When Kompany was sent off, Gutman had to make another change immediately and decided to bring in Belgium League and Club Brugge star Lior Refaelov.
With Israel pressing and attacking, Wilmots was saved by his shot stopper Courtois on more than one occasion, bailing out Belgium time after time. Courtois not only earned the Man of the Match honours but also got a big bear hug from Wilmots after snagging maximum points. This may not have been the match that Belgium had envisioned when they set out on their trip to the Holy land but they still walked away with the win and first place in the group after securing the lone goal of the match in the 9th minute from a loose ball in front of the Israel goal as Marouane Fellaini pounded it home.
Gutman spoke about the positives from the match against Belgium and how his players fought for every ball, played intelligently and aggressively in the 2nd half. He had kind words for Nir Bitton & Rami Gershon and praised his players for playing the type of football he likes and can be proud of. However, moral victories are just that, nice and positive but leaves reality behind. That reality is that Israel played two home matches in front of over 60K supporters and came away with no goals and no points ending the first five matches with 9-points and in 3rd place in Group B one less than Gutman’s stated target of ten in the pre-game press conference.
Remembering back to the 1-1 draw against France on March 30, 2005 David Trezeguet scored a goal in the 50th minute but just five minutes later he was sent off with a straight red card due to a head butt giving Israel a man advantage for 35 minutes to not only tie the match up but to also win the game. Unfortunately for Avram Grant the Israel National team coach that day he was only able to muster a Walid Badier strike in the 83rd minute good to split the points with the world power who then went on to play in the World Cup Finals losing to Italy. The group ended with France 20 points while Switzerland and Israel ended level on points at 18 a piece. However, Switzerland advanced to the playoffs due to better goal differential and the rest is history. Israel again didn’t make a world class tournament. The side didn’t lose a game but couldn’t find that extra point. Everyone walking out of Ramat Gan Stadium that night were thrilled to have drawn with France, while I knew better muttering to myself that this draw will cost them down the road. A missed opportunity and not a moral victory.
Gutman will have plenty of work ahead of him prior to the match against Bosnia away in June and a lot to think about knowing that this match may well be the most critical of the campaign. It may be the make it or break it for finishing in 3rd place and a spot in the playoffs or yet another disappointing tournament only to watch it from home. Belgium leads the group with 11 points while Wales is right behind due to goal difference at 11 points as well. Israel is next with 9 points followed by Cyprus 6 points, Bosnia 5 points & Andorra last with 0.
Gutman and Israel may get away with a moral victory after this loss at home to Belgium 1-0, but won’t get away with that should they not get a positive result in Bosnia.
At the end of the day there are missed opportunities but no moral victories in football.