Sinai Says: Two down, plenty more meaningful tests lie ahead for blue-and-white

For the first time since 2006, and for just the second time since joining UEFA over 20 years ago, Israel has won its first two matches to begin a qualifying campaign.

By
October 15, 2014 00:36
Tal Ben-Haim and Omer Damari

Tal Ben-Haim and Omer Damari of the Israel national soccer team. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There are numerous angles through which to assess Israel’s start to Euro 2016 qualification.

However, there is only one bottom line.

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For the first time since 2006, and for just the second time since joining UEFA over 20 years ago, Israel has won its first two matches to begin a qualifying campaign.

The 2-1 victory at Cyprus last Friday followed by Monday’s 4-1 triumph at Andorra were far from surprising results. The blue-and-white simply couldn’t afford not to beat the two weakest teams in Group B.

Clearly, Israel’s schedule had a lot to do with it picking up six points out of six.

However, after coming up short in similar scenarios in the past, Israel fans know nothing can be taken for granted.

The last time Israel opened a campaign with two consecutive wins was in Euro 2008 qualification.

Under the guidance of Dror Kashtan, the national team beat Estonia 1-0 on the road before defeating Andorra 4-1. It ultimately finished behind England only on goal difference, but nevertheless ended the group in a disappointing fourth place, with Croatia and Russia advancing.

The reason for the team’s failure was simple.

While it claimed six wins from six matches against the group’s lesser sides, it couldn’t spring a surprise against higher-seeded opponents.

A draw on the road against Russia was a respectable result, but the blue-and-white only picked up one more point in four matches against Croatia and England before beating Russia at home after already losing all hope of claiming a top-two finish.

That is ultimately the source of Israel’s continuous failure to reach a major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.

The national team hasn’t beaten a real rival in qualification since the 20th century. Its last win in a meaningful encounter against a superior opponent was the famous 5-0 thrashing of Austria in June 1999.

That too didn’t lead to qualification for Euro 2000. But the 8-0 aggregate drubbing at the hands of Denmark in November 1999 remains Israel’s last appearance in a qualification playoff.

Considering all of the above, it is hard to overstate the importance of Israel’s next qualifier against Bosnia at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on November 16.

That match will come almost exactly 15 years to the day of the humbling 5-0 first-leg home defeat to Denmark and could go a long way to determining if Israel reaches the playoffs or perhaps even qualifies directly for Euro 2016.

Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, which will involve 24 nations rather than 16 for the first time, not only will the top two and the best third-place team from the nine qualifying groups advance automatically to the finals, but the remaining third-place sides will progress to the playoffs.

Belgium and Bosnia looked to be firm favorites to clinch the top two positions in the group following the draw. However, while Belgium still seems to be the strongest side in Group B, Bosnia’s stuttering start to the campaign has all of the sudden given the likes of Israel and Wales real hope of finishing in second place, let alone reaching the playoffs from third.

A victory over Bosnia next month will move Israel to nine points out of nine, while the Bosnians will be stuck on two points from four matches after suffering a shock 2-1 home defeat to Cyprus to begin the campaign before recording draws against Wales and Belgium.

Assuming Israel goes on to overcome Cyprus and Andorra at home and picks up just three more points from its four matches against Wales and Belgium, Bosnia will need to win all its remaining games, including against Belgium on the road, to finish ahead of Gutman’s men.

To cut a long story short, a victory over Bosnia next month will in all likelihood mean Israel will at least qualify for the playoffs.

However, despite all its struggles and Israel’s promising start, Bosnia remains the bookmakers’ favorite to beat the blue-and-white in Haifa, with the likes of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, Rome’s Miralem Pjanic and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibisevic all part of a powerful squad which played in the recent World Cup in Brazil.

“If we want to qualify we need to beat Bosnia at home,” said Israel midfielder Bibras Natcho.

“Our goal was to enter the match against Bosnia with six points and we have achieved that. We will be looking to beat Bosnia in front of a sold out stadium in Haifa and try and knock them out of the race. I think that in the past we would have probably only managed to draw a match like the one against Cyprus, but this time we found a way to win and maybe that symbolizes the start of something new.”

Israel is coming off its worst campaign since Euro 2004 qualification, finishing 2014 World Cup qualifying Group F in third place, but doing so in bitterly disappointing fashion.

Apart from its two emphatic wins over rock-bottom Luxembourg, Israel managed just one victory from eight matches, an impressive 2-0 triumph over Northern Ireland in Belfast. There was also no shame in the two draws against Portugal, but the two stalemates with Azerbaijan, the two emphatic defeats against Russia and finally the frustrating home draw against Northern Ireland meant Gutman’s job was in danger.

Gutman’s inexperience showed in the fact that he used 35 different players in the campaign, more than his past three predecessors in the job, and the third most among the 53 national teams which played in the UEFA qualifying groups.

He seems to have learned from his mistake, sticking to a core of players over the team’s past two qualifiers and most recent friendly match in the summer.

Gutman only made two changes ahead of the encounter with Andorra following the win over Cyprus, with seven players starting in both qualifiers, as well as the 4-2 friendly victory over Honduras in June.

Captain Tal Ben-Haim and Eitan Tibi are all but guaranteed a place at the center of the defense as long as they are fit, with Natcho, Eran Zahavi, Tal Ben-Haim and Gili Vermut Gutman’s favorites in the midfield.

With five goals over Israel’s past three matches, including a hat-trick against Andorra, Omer Damari is also certain to start against Bosnia having cemented his place as the national team’s leading striker.

Everything could have been different had Israel opened its campaign as scheduled against Belgium on September 9. But the postponement of the match to March 31, 2015 due to the security situation in the country at the time gifted the blue-and-white a golden opportunity to start with two consecutive wins.

Following the showdown with Bosnia and a four-month break, the national team will host Wales and Belgium in two do-or-die qualifiers over four days next March.

First things first however, with the home match against Bosnia coming up next.

Everything is in place for Israel to take the next step and finally close in on qualification for a first major tournament in 46 years.

There are countless excuses to why it may fail to do so.

But this is the opportunity Israel has long been waiting for.

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