You could see the disappointment written all over Israel National Team coach Andi Herzog’s face when he walked into the post match press conferee after his side drew 1:1 with North Macedonia in a contest that was pretty much a must win.
He looked more dumbfounded and exhausted rather than upset and angry. He probably couldn’t believe what had just happened. Israel played like its old self that genuinely summed up and brought to mind the old Abba Eran quote about the Israel and Arab conflict, however, perfectly applicable to the Israel National Team that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
North Macedonia was the opponent ripe for the taking. The superstar striker Goran Pandev was not going to start due to injury and even when he came on late in the game he could barely walk yet run as I saw him limp out of the mixed zone following the match. The game was being played at home at the intimate Toto Turner Stadium and even despite some players not being in match fitness due to a variety of issues from injuries to not playing with their club or even having a club in one player’s case, Israel was the favored side.
Although North Macedonia is ranked 71st and Israel 84th in the FIFA Rankings, the Blue & White were the preferred side and they had to show that on the pitch. Which of course they did not. Manor Solomon had a superb game as the Shakhtar Donetsk youngster sliced and diced the Macedonian defense and Eran Zahavi scored his 8th goal in five games to lead the qualifying tournament to date, but that was about it. There wasn’t much else coming from Herzog’s squad.
Attacks continuously went down the left side where Omri Ben Harush provided inaccurate cross after inaccurate cross while on the right Eli Dasa barely even touched the ball and was a non factor as designed by the Israel offense. Once Solomon fed Zahavi a terrific cross in the box that the latter slammed home, Israel went to sleep and just stopped playing opening the door for Macedonia to find the equalizer taking advantage of what seems to be all of Israel football’s achilles heal the dreaded set piece.
In typical fashion, a perfectly placed free kick by Eqzijan Alioski was headed home by Arijan Ademi to draw even and that was that. Herzog decided not to use his third substitute to bring on an in form Dia Saba late in the game and ended up settling for a point to the delight of the North Macedonian brass who were seated right above me in the press box. They couldn’t believe their luck to walk out with a point and even have a chance to win when the Israeli defense fell asleep at the wheel very late in the game which would have spelled disaster.
I asked Herzog as to why he didn’t use his final substitute and he felt that he didn’t want to take another chance after taking off Ben Harush and moving Solomon into his place.
“We had a lot of firepower with Eran Zahavi, Tomer Hemed, Manor Solomon and Beram Kayal and to bring on another attacker would have been a risk. I had already taken a risk when I took off Omri Ben Harush as a wingback and out Solomon there, I wanted more speed and I think Solomon did a great job.”
It’s certainly true that Solomon did a great job (we’ll talk about him soon) but Herzog had to go for it, at home and try to take the 3 points and the win. He wouldn’t dare make that call on the road at Slovenia, but at home he had too. He had to take that risk and take that chance, especially after having won just one match at home with only two left, one of which will be against Poland, the same Poland that wiped the floor with them 4:0 in Warsaw this past June.
The other point I have to take the coach to task is playing those who have really not put in minutes at their club teams. It’s never a good idea to play those who aren’t match fit and although Monas Dabbur and Eli Dasa may be training well, they haven’t played a second yet while Bibras Natcho and Omri Ben Harush have barely played any minutes at all.
Following the game, Herzog did address that point saying, “On one side we have to see the positives from the game, but on the other we had some players who weren’t in match fitness.” Seems to me he is still rethinking his decision. But as they say hindsight is 20/20.
Starting Ofir Marciano over Ariel Harush was the right call and the Scottish league keeper’s form paid dividends for Herzog when he made some superb instinctive saves. But as he told me as he ended his press conference, “We have good goalkeepers and I thought we would give Ofir a chance and he did very well. We are happy to have some quality in goal and for today it doesn’t matter we had other situations where we had to do better on the field.”
And that’s the truth. Israel had to do better no matter what.
1) Manor Solomon was the star of the show for Israel. He was so much fun to watch on the pitch as he moved gracefully around the field, beating his defender time and time again while helping out the attack creating one chance after the next. “Solomon is a great talent,” explained Dabbur. “We saw that today especially in the second half when he assisted on Zahavi’s goal. As he gains more experience and match minutes with Shaktar Donetsk and the National Team I’ll be there to help him. He is going to be a great player.” Zahavi also heaped praise on Solomon, “He was terrific. He made some great plays and he gave everything he could. He’s proved that he is an excellent player and I hope that he will continue to put in these type of performances.” Manor Solomon then commented on his play to me as well, “I am happy to be able to help the National Team and I am content that I was able to assist on the goal. I had other chances also, when I sent balls to Tomer Hemed, Eran Zahavi and Dor Peretz. But you have to remember, I have just begun my career with the Israel National team and I’m only 20 years old. I’m sure that as time goes on I will be even better and show more of my qualities on the pitch and be able to help the team.”
2) Israel will now be under even more pressure to get a result in Slovenia and Herzog spoke about that fact, “As a professional and a player or coach with the national team you have to be able to play under pressure and that’s normal. If you can’t deal with this pressure then you will never have success. If we have in our mindset that we will lose the decisive game then we will lose. As a coach, it’s important to show them what was good and what we have to do better in Slovenia. We have to now rest up and we may have other players who will start as we have to find new ideas. At home Slovenia will be a different team than what we’ve already seen.
3) But the bottom line as Herzog said is, “We aren’t happy with a draw at home and we will have to steal points from some other places, perhaps in Slovenia. We missed points in some of the home games and we now have to find them someplace else.”
4) One final word, Hatem Abd Elahmed blew off the media and walked right by all the reporters and assembled journalists in the mixed zone following the match. After recently moving to Celtic, the Israeli defender could have spent a few minutes like almost everyone else talking to the press. It wouldn’t have killed him to tell us about playing for one of the most prestigious teams in the world while also commenting about the match that was. But he decided not to. Perhaps when he needs the media, we won’t be there for him.