Israel opens qualifying campaign in Cyprus
Israel coach Eli gutman
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Blue-and-white aiming to get off to a winning start as it looks to finally end major tournament drought.
It has been almost 15 years since the Israel national team managed to even reach the playoff stage of a qualifying campaign.In seven campaigns since, the blueand- white has finished in third place five times and in fourth position twice, coming up short time and again in its attempt to reach a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.As frustrating as its inability to even reach the playoffs since the 8-0 aggregate defeat to Denmark in Euro 2000 qualifying has been, failing to do so this time around will be truly disappointing.Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, even third place will be sufficient to qualify for the playoffs, with the top two advancing automatically to Euro 2016 in France, which will involve 24 nations for the first time. After what should have been its opening qualifier against Belgium was postponed from September 9 to March 31, 2015 due to the security situation in the country at the time, Israel begins its campaign with two matches over four days which could already put the team in a promising position or all but end its hopes.With Belgium and Bosnia considered the favorites in Group B, Israel is expected to battle Cyprus and Wales for third place, with Andorra all but certain to finish bottom of the group. Israel visits Cyprus in Nicosia in its opener on Friday night before facing Andorra on the road three days later.Despite a bitterly disappointing 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Israel national team coach Eli Gutman was given another opportunity, one which he can scarcely afford to squander.The national team is coming off its worst campaign since Euro 2004 qualification, only managing one victory in eight matches apart from its two emphatic wins over rock-bottom Luxembourg.Israel did manage to score 19 goals, its second-best tally of all-time behind the 25 goals netted in Euro 2000 qualification.However, Gutman’s men also recorded the national team’s second- worse defensive campaign, conceding 14 goals. The only time Israel allowed more goals in a campaign was way back in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers when the blue-and-white let in 25 goals and finished bottom of its group.Nevertheless, Gutman was handed a contract extension and is feeling quietly optimistic ahead of the start of the new campaign.“With every day that passes I feel better and better about my team,” said Gutman.“I believe in my players and I have a wonderful squad. At the end of the day we will be judged on the results we record. But the most important thing for me is to see us progress on the pitch and I believe that if that happens we will record the result we are hoping for.”After much deliberation, Gutman decided to hand Ofir Martziano his debut in goal, with the coach otherwise set to use an almost identical lineup to the one which beat Honduras 4-2 in the blueand- white’s most recent friendly at the start of June.Omri Ben-Harush, Eitan Tibi, Tal Ben- Haim and Eyal Meshumar are expected to form the back-four, with the latter replacing Yuval Spungin, who is out through injury.Sheran Yeini and Bibras Natcho are likely to start as defensive midfielders, while Eran Zahavi, Tal Ben-Haim and Gili Vermut will play in more attacking midfield positions. Omer Damari is set to be the team’s lone striker.Cyprus stunned Bosnia 2-1 on the road in its opener last month, but had previously gone winless in 16 qualifiers. Up until last month, the Cypriots hadn’t picked up all three points from a match since a 1-0 victory over San Marino in August 2007, failing to score a goal in its previous nine internationals.“We can’t get overexcited about one good result because we are still the underdog in this group,” said Cyprus coach Pambos Christodoulou.“I hope we are a little lucky and manage to beat Israel.”