Israel picked up a pair of 1-1 draws against Scotland and Slovakia respectively in UEFA Nations League play as the blue-and-white used the games as a dress rehearsal for next month’s European Championship Qualifying semifinal back in Glasgow. Head Coach Willi Ruttensteiner gained much food for thought over the 180 minutes which will certainly help the team when they return to Hampden Park with a ticket to the final against Serbia or Norway on the line in November.
The bench boss opened both matches with the exact same starting lineup which featured Scottish based Ofir Marciano in goal, a trio of central defenders in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eitan Tibi together with Nir Bitton and Hatem El Hamed who both play for Celtic and a pair of speedy wing backs in Vitesse’s Eli Dasa and Taleb Tawhatha who had most recently been with Ludogorets in Bulgaria.
In the midfield, Ruttensteiner had his captain Bibras Natcho who features for Partizan Belgrade, starlet Manor Solomon who plies his trade with Shakhtar Donetsk and Maccabi’s Dor Peretz while Hoffenheim’s striker Monas Dabbur and Eran Zahavi who is looking to leave his Chinese squad Guanghzou R&F up front.
There’s no question that this starting XI will be in line to feature in the decisive semifinal on October 8th, barring of course any injuries. While their performance was admirable, there are still a number of areas of concern for the Austrian manager with the most glaring being the ability to put the ball into the back of the goal.
Scoring just once per match won’t be able to do the job for Israel going forward as the team continues to rely heavily on star striker Eran Zahavi to provide the firepower. The blue-and-white created oodles of chances at home against Slovakia and with a bit more patience perhaps the finishing could have been better, but Ruttensteiner needs to find a way to get more players involved in the offense.
Youngster Ilay Elmkies who came off the bench to rescue a point late in the game may be able to help out, but he is still too young and untested to be able to take a starting role with the team that once again saw Zahavi have the most chances at the target. In fact, Zahavi could have stolen the victory on the last shot of the game but his effort went off the left post.
Monas Dabbur looked good at Scotland with an amazing header chance just before half-time and assisted on Zahavi’s tying goal in the first game but at the Netanya Stadium, he looked static, slow and just not into the contest. This was also the case with Taleb Tawhatha, which shouldn’t be a surprise when playing two games within 72 hours, with the second in sweltering heat and humidity especially when he hadn’t been playing regularly.
Dor Peretz spoke about how the weather had been perfect in Scotland to play football while the same couldn’t be said about the situation back in Israel which was very difficult to cope with. Perhaps Ruttensteiner underestimated not only the players’ fitness but also the effects the weather would have in his charges. Ruttensteiner himself looked wiped out in the post game interview shown on television and when he walked into the press conference room following the game.
One good thing for Israel next month is that the Scotland game is being hosted by the Tartan Army and that it’s the first of three with a home tilt against the Czech Republic and a trip to Slovakia in Nations League play following the semifinal.
On the defensive side of the game, although Israel gave up only one goal in each clash it was how they conceded them that should raise the red flags. At Scotland, Eitan Tibi’s questionable foul in the box right at the end of the first half resulted in a penalty that was promptly scored which forced Ruttensteiner’s crew into a deficit situation at halftime instead of being level.
Versus Slovakia, Israel controlled the pace of play for the opening 13 minutes but then out of nowheres and against the run of play, a mental breakdown by the central defenders right at the top of the box gave wily striker Michal Ďuriš a free attempt on a helpless Marciano to give the visitors a shocking lead. Ďuriš confused the center backs as the ball went off of a slow Tibi, Bitton’s hand went up signaling an offside to the referee and Israel was hung out to dry as it took them a good twenty minutes or so to regain their footing. Could newcomer Joel Abu Hanna who plays for Zorya Luhansk be a potential replacement for Tibi? The coach will have to make that decision which could be a risky one in such an important match.
As Ruttensteiner said when you make mistakes at this level you will pay for them dearly and Israel did in both of these cases. It should also be noted that his squad could have easily lost to Scotland as James Forrest had a terrific chance near the end of the game but as luck would have it, the blue-and-white escaped with the point, just as Slovakia did in Netanya.
A few more things Ruttensteiner needs to consider ahead of October is finding a way to play the Israeli league’s MVP Dan Glazer in the midfield instead of spending two games on the bench save for a token appearance in the 90th minute of the Scotland clash. Yonatan Cohen who did get some playing time in both games as a substitute also needs to be groomed for a more important role with the team.
Also, it’s clear that striker Shon Weissman can move and groove on the pitch and has a knack for finding space and threatening the goal. Weissman just moved to Real Valladolid in the Spanish La Liga from Austria’s Wolfsberger AC and should be considered to start in place of Dabbur, however contingent on how much each end up playing over the next month for their club teams.
Finally, it’s clear that we are witnessing Manor Solomon as the maestro in the midfield with the future being now for the 21-year old Kfar Saba native. Solomon was able to do as he pleased at the height of 1.67 meters and dictated the tempo for Israel. His runs, vision and all around dribbling is that of all-star caliber as the Shakhtar Donetsk player may soon head to a bigger league after starring in the Ukraine.
Israel will need to continue to build a solid base of players should they want to succeed in the international forum with as many as possible playing in the top leagues around the continent. Ruttensteiner is off to a good start but will still need to tighten things up as he tries to guide his squad to the promised land.