Israel's Tomer Hemed (L), Itay Shechter (C) and Tal Ben Chaim celebrate a goal against Andorra during their Euro 2016 qualification soccer match .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel got its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign up and running on Thursday night, beating Macedonia 2-1 in Skopje for its first win in Group G.
With powerhouses Italy and Spain set to finish in the top two spots in the group, the blue-and-white always knew that its realistic goal would be to finish in third place, while building the team ahead of Euro 2020 qualification and improving its seeding in future draws.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Israel hosts Liechtenstein in another must-win match on Sunday. The national team also faces Albania in Group G.
Tomer Hemed gave Israel the lead against the run of play in the 25th minute, with Tal Ben-Haim doubling the advantage in the 43rd minute.
Ilija Nestorovski got a goal back for Macedonia in the 63rd minute, but Israel held on for its first points of the campaign after Dudu Goresh saved a penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time from Adis Jahovic.
Macedonia got off to the brighter start and would have scored at least twice in the first half had it been more accurate in front of goal.
Goran Pandev, a former Inter, Lazio and Napoli striker, who currently plays for Genoa in Italy, reached his first good chance in the 11th minute, sending his shot from the edge of the box wide of the target.
The 33-year-old registered an even worse miss a minute later, not even finding the target from five meters out with only goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to beat.
The hosts found the back of the net in the 22nd minute, but Nestorovski’s goal was ruled out for a questionable offside call by English referee Andre Marriner.
Israel made the most of the reprieve, taking the lead three minutes later.
Eyal Golasa, whose inclusion in the starting lineup was criticized due to his lack of playing time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, sent a perfectly weighted ball through to Hemed, who gave ‘keeper Martin Bogatinov no chance with his powerful header, scoring his 13th goal in his 25th appearance for the national team.
Israel was spared again four minutes later, with Goresh missing the ball, only for Feran Hasani to send his header wide.
The blue-and-white caught Macedonia on the break for its second goal two minutes from the break. Nir Bitton squared the ball for Ben-Haim, who took his time before ultimately rounding the ‘keeper and doubling Israel’s advantage.
Israel should have made it 3-0 in the second minute of the second half, but Eran Zahavi chose to shoot instead of pass to an open Hemed and his shot was denied.
Goresh ensured Israel maintained its two-goal cushion with his save from Egzijan Alioski’s header in the 53rd minute, but Macedonia would finally be rewarded for its dominance 10 minutes later.
Nestorovski was given far too much time and space in the box and slotted the ball into the bottom right corner.
Macedonia had its chances to equalize, but Israel survived the scare.
Earlier Thursday, Israel’s under-21 national team beat Greece 4-0 to keep alive its hopes of qualifying for next summer’s European Championships. Omri Altman (27, 60), Shoval Gozlan (42) and Dor Peretz (55) scored for Marco Balbul’s side, which improved to 18 points with its fifth win in Group 4.
Israel secured second place in the group with Thursday’s win at Turner Stadium in Beersheba, with Portugal already wrapping up first place.
The nine group winners automatically join host Poland in the finals, while the four best runners-up will play off for the remaining two places.
Israel hosts Albania in Petah Tikva in its final group match on Monday, but will need one of the other runners-up to slipup in order to progress to the playoffs.