Israel captain Eran Zahavi celebrates after scoring the opener in last night’s win at Albania in 2018 World Cup qualification..
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Israel remained in touch with Spain and Italy at the summit of 2018 World Cup qualifying Group G, defeating nine-man Albania 3-0 on the road on Saturday.
After a week full of distractions, the national team shifted its focus back to the field and took a significant step towards a third-place finish, assuming Spain and Italy claim the top two spots as expected.
Spain and Italy each have 10 points, claiming wins over Macedonia and Liechtenstein, respectively.
The blue-and-white had been far from impressive in its campaign until Saturday, barely beating one of European soccer’s minnows in Liechtenstein, while requiring a 95th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to defeat Macedonia.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to homeand- away playoffs. Nevertheless, Israel is desperate to finish in third and improve its seeding ahead of Euro 2020 qualification.
Much of Israel’s preparation for the match in Albania was overshadowed by security concerns. The game was moved from the northern city of Shkoder to a venue near the capital Tirana earlier last week following the uncovering of a terror plot. Israel’s counter-terrorism bureau issued a statement saying that a number of people identified as having links to Islamic State militants had been arrested “in the Balkans” over the past week on the suspicion that they were planning attacks.
The game went off without a hitch and the Israel national team will remember Saturday’s effort for a long time.
The blue-and-white took the lead in the 18th minute thanks to an Eran Zahavi penalty.
Zahavi earned the spot kick after being brought down in the box by defender Berat Xhimshiti, who also received a red card for denying the Israel captain a clear shot at goal.
Albania was down to nine men in the 55th minute, with goalkeeper Etrit Berisha being spotted head-butting Zahavi. He would miss the penalty, but the blue-andwhite secured the win in the 66th minute.
Substitute goalkeeper Alban Hoxha palmed the ball straight at Dan Einbinder who was at the right place at the right time to find the back of the net.
Substitute Eliran Ater made it 3-0 six minutes from time to cap a famous win for Israel that puts it in an excellent position in Group G.
Elsewhere, a second-half goal from winger James McClean fired Ireland to the top of World Cup qualifying Group D as his side scored a scrappy but glorious 1-0 victory over Austria in Vienna.
The win put the Irish top of the group on 10 points, three ahead of group rivals Serbia and five ahead of Wales, which met later on Saturday in Cardiff. Austria is fourth with four points. The Austrians dominated the opening exchanges but failed to create many clear-cut efforts on goal, with their best chance falling to Marcel Sabitzer who hit the crossbar in the first half.
McClean, however, made no mistake just after the break when he slipped the ball through the legs of keeper Ramazan Ozcan to give Ireland all three points and a first victory over Austria since 1963.
The hosts battered the Irish defense in the opening period, forcing three corners in the opening 10 minutes but there was little venom in the Austrian attempts on goal.
Austria’s best chance came when Sabitzer saw his chip over keeper Darren Randolph bounce off the crossbar, with striker Marc Janko unable to stab home a squared pass from close range from the rebound.
Austria poured forward in search of an equalizer and Janko had two excellent chances to equalize in the dying minutes.
However, both of his headers were off target, much to the delight of the 3,500 travelling Irish fans.Reuters contributed to this report