The Israel National team is getting ready for two crucial World Cup Qualifiers, one Saturday night against Azerbejan and the second Tuesday evening in St. Petersburg, Russia.
If Israel wants to have chance to make it to the last two matches in Portugal and home against Northern Ireland they have no choice but to win both of these games.
The one major problem Israel is facing is the injury bug. It seems everyone and their mother is hurt or nicked up one way or another and that does not bode well for their chances in both of these games.
We have to remember and look back to the points that have been lost in qualifying. The first 2 points were dropped in Baku against this weekend’s opponent Azerbejan. Israel had been leading in this match and should have taken all three points, but that was not to be. I recall sitting in a hotel room in Milan, Italy the weekend of the Monza Formula One Race with my oldest son watching the match details scroll by on my iPad and when Israel couldn’t find a way to score a winner I knew this game would come back to haunt them.
The other points lost were two in March at home in a crazy tilt with Ronaldo and Portugal. I was in the stands with all three of my boys for this one where Israel took a shock 3-1 led but somehow found way to fritter away the two goal lead in the last twenty minutes and give u the tying goal in the dying seconds. One of my sons was in tears as to how Israel had choked so badly as the Israel ‘keeper Dudu Aoute couldn’t figure outa way to properly clear the ball away from the home goal.
But that is now in the past and both Russia and Portugal also suffered some points lost which puts Israel in the position they are in today which is still in the ballpark to somehow qualify or play in the playoff.
The catch is though the injuries, lack of fitness and poor play for many of the Israelis have made a revolving door in and out of the camp for coach Eli Gutman has had to deal with.
Hurt are Rami Gershon who scored a tremendous header in March against Portugal, Beram Kayal a fixture at Celtic, strikers Eden Ben Bassat from Toulouse, Tomer Hemed of Mallorca, Eyal Meshumar from Maccabi Haifa, Avi Rikon who just began playing at Zurich, and Taleb Tawhatwa. That is quite a list of injuries which will affect Israel’s ability to score some goals.
The opportunity to do that will come down to strikers Eilran Atar, Elyianiv Barda, Itay Schecter, Omer Damari & Shimon Abuheitzera most of which play domestically except for Eliran Atar who just moved to Stade de Reims in France, but even he has looked a bit out of place on the big stage when it has come to National team duty.
The other issue facing the National team is the lack of fitness for ‘keeper Dudu Aoute who has given up what seems to be a million goals for Spanish 2nd division outfit Mallorca, squad Captain Yossi Benayoun who has yet to find a team, the defender Tal Ben Haim who has played a total of 19 minutes under Israeli manager Guy Luzon at Standard Liege in Belgium, Sheran Yeieni who has struggled a bit thus far at Maccabi Tel Aviv, nicked up defender Yuval Spungin and Valenciennes midfielder Maor Melikson and the aforementioned Itay Schecter who is having a rough return to Hapoel Tel Aviv.
This leaves Israel with a shorter roster and a very inexperienced bench for these two matches. Aoute will start and probably be given the captains armband, but he has to put aside his disastrous start in Spain and make sure to give Israel the opportunity to take 6 points. If he can’t find his way in goal Israel’s chances will drop dramatically leaving their last two group matches for trying out younger players getting ready for the Euro qualifying campaign.
Sure Israel still has a tremendous player in the midfield in Bibras Natcho who plies his trade at Rubin Kazan in Russia and was voted best foreigner in that league last season but he has still had problems translating this play for the national team. The problem is he does not have a clue who will be playing beside him as does defensive stalwart Eitan Tibi of Maccabi Tel Aviv who was arguably one of the best players on the pitch this week for their match against Bnei Yehuda.
The question now is, who will be given the opportunity to feature for Israel and perhaps be the wild card in helping them stay in contention.
On the defensive end I really like the play of Ofir Davidzada from Hapoel Beer Sheva. He was very impressive this summer playing for the Under 21 squad and could be playing for a very long time for Israel on their defensive corps. He brings dynamic play and reads the game very well. Oz Rali playing for Bnei Yehuda is a sought after player in Israel as Maccabi Tel Aviv just put out a big offer for the defender. I’m certain Dekel Keinan who plays for Maccabi Haifa will be in the starting lineup and his veteran status will help along the younger charges.
The midfield has a glut of players and that may give Eli Gutman the idea to play with a lone striker in a 4-3-2-1 set up. Along with Natcho, Melikson should be fit to play and we may see the likes of Hen Ezra who has been in sensational form for Maccabi Haifa scoring a couple of beauties off the left side of the box in the past couple of games, Lior Refaelov of Club Brugge, Maharan Radi, Eran Zehavi & Gal Alberman of Maccabi Tel Aviv have all been in great shape thus far.
But the player I am really looking forward to seeing is Nir Biton recently signed by Celtic in Scotland. After playing for Ashdod and growing up in their system, the 21 year old will be making his way to Celtic Park after captaining the Israel Under 21 team. He brings a lot of potential and dynamic play to the table and this game may be his coming out party on the grand scale.
He was able to witness greatness last week sitting in the stands for Celtic’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Shaktar Karagandy where Celtic was able to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg into a 3-0 victory in the second with the winning goal being scored by James Forrest in the last seconds of regulation time.
Biton will be a money time player one day, but will these days coming up be the time for him to ply his trade? Only Coach Gutman knows that, but Biton has practiced personally with the coach on the side with Schecter & Damari and that may be a hint of three players who may factor in during the next week of matches.
All in all, I am looking forward to seeing what Israel has in store for its fans and opponents and maybe, just maybe the optimist in me says that the last two matches in October will be for all the marbles.
Remember, anything can happen in the beautiful game and perhaps Israel will make it, against all odds.