The Israel National Team looked ahead to their two World Cup qualifiers coming up on Thursday at Poland and against Estonia a home on Sunday. The blue-and-white enter the upcoming FIBA window of games in second place in Group D with a 2-2 record as they will attempt to head into the next round of qualifying in position to advance to the 2023 World Cup.
Ahead of the two clashes, head coach Guy Goodes and captain Gal Mekel addressed the assembled media about the importance of the contests and how he sees the pair of games playing out as well as the challenges in making sure that Israel is prepared and ready to go.
“Poland will be an entirely different game than the first one which we played back last November,” Goodes explained. “They have three players that didn’t take part in the last game as AJ Slaughter, Mateusz Ponitka and Michal Sokolowski will be available. They are a very dominant and strong team at home and just like everyone else they want to advance to the playoff round.”
Back in November of 2021 when Israel opened up the World Cup campaign, Poland jumped out all over the blue-and-white as they had to dig out of a massive hole in order to eventually notch the home win. Goodes is well aware that the same story can’t repeat itself in Lublin, “Poland really pressed us hard last game and it took us about five minutes to figure out what was going on. In the second half we were able to do what we needed to and made a big comeback to win the game. We then played well against Estonia and we came together as a team, but now it’s money time and everyone has to do the best that they can in order to win these games.”
Mekel also reflected back on the first game between the two squads, “Last time we played Poland they really came in and hit us hard at the start of the game and that’s something that we are preparing for. It will be a super physical game and if we can match them in intensity and physically we will be fine, as we can play with everyone.”
A few years ago, FIBA made a drastic change to the qualification process and instead of playing all of the qualifiers in one fell swoop during the summer, various windows are set up throughout the year similar to how soccer has their qualification process. For better or worse these windows where in most cases two games are played create their own challenges whether they are in November, February, June or August.
“Each window has a life of its own,” Goodes commented. “We saw that both in November and February when we played Germany twice and missed out on a win on the road and if we were a bit sharper we could have won at home. We have been able to practice more this time around than in previous windows but players are coming in from a number of places and we have to make sure that we are ready for Thursday’s game.”
Mekel concurred with the bench boss, “Every window is different and we want to get back onto the winning track. We need to win one game and two would be preferable. Some players are coming together after some time off and some are coming in from playing so we have to really work hard.”
Goodes expanded on the advantages of the windows which take place in season, “When you have the games during the season players, players are all in shape and everyone can get ready to play very quickly. This window is much more of a mental challenge as some have been off and need to get into game shape while others may have just been playing. This is the same case for our opponents like Poland but they had two exhibitions games which will help them.”
Two players who arrived a bit late to training camp are Yovel Zoosman and Tamir Blatt who helped ALBA Berlin win the German League Championship this past week and are both coming off of superb campaigns. Their addition is welcome and Goodes doesn’t have to worry that the pair aren’t in good playing shape, “Having both Tamir and Yovel here with us is very good and they are both in shape after winning their domestic title so they won’t have to go into preseason mode in order to get ready. They will be both prepared physically and mentally for the two games ahead.”
While Zoosman and Blatt know that they will be back in Berlin next season there are still a number of National Team players who are still trying to figure out where they will be playing their club basketball in just a couple of months and that is of concern as they must be 100% focussed on the immediate task at hand explained Goodes, “The players are aware of the situation and it’s part of the summer. But the players know what we want to do and when they begin practice they are focused in the goal. If a player hasn’t signed or is going to sign with a team they know to put it aside and focus.”
One of the players who has yet to sign with a team for this coming season is Mekel who played with Andorra last year. However, he said that he is not concerned and has been through these types of situations before, “I’ve been in these positions many times and sometimes have even waited until the season has already started to sign. But right now that is of no concern to me as I’m just concentrating on the national team.”
Mekel is among a number of guards that are in camp which includes Yam Madar, Bar Timor, John Dibartolomeo, Iftach Ziv along with Blatt and Mekel which will most probably mean that at least one won’t be dressed for each of the upcoming games.
“The national team always has played with two guards on the court and I have good chemistry between me and Tamir,” Mekel said. “It’s good that we have so many guards and there are some younger players here who are playing at the highest levels. Each one of us has to come in and give our best. In the EuroLeague you can see how there is competition and there have been times that I had to deal with the same issues where teams had 4 or 5 guards that could all play.”
Goodes looks at having so many guards as a heathy issue for the squad, “It’s always good to have a glut of quality players at a certain position and it can also give me a bigger headache as my job is to select the players who are in the best shape that can help the team win. There is a competition for places in the squad and that is super important.”