Israel’s national team returned home from Northern Ireland on Wednesday evening brimming with confidence and brandishing broad smiles after claiming a 2-0 win in Belfast the previous night to keep alive its lingering hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup.

The national team was far from impressive on Tuesday, but it kept the hosts at bay and struck twice on the break through Lior Rafaelov (77) and Eden Ben-Basat (84) to clinch all three points and remain in second place in Group F with 11 points, ahead of Portugal on goal difference.

Israel doesn’t play its next qualifier until September 6, when it hosts Azerbaijan before visiting Russia four days later. The blue-and-white will then visit Portugal on October 11 before concluding its campaign with a home match against Northern Ireland four days after that.

However, Israel will be keeping a keen eye on the showdown between Portugal and Russia on June 7, crossing its fingers for a Russian win on the road.

Portugal will then visit Northern Ireland (September 6) before hosting Israel and completing its qualifiers against Luxembourg at home.

With four wins from four matches and two more games still to come against Luxembourg, Russia seems set to run away with first place in Group F and the automatic qualification spot, leaving Israel and Portugal to battle it out for the runners-up position and a berth in the playoffs.

Israel currently has the edge in the standings, but has still got to visit both Russia and Portugal.

Assuming it defeats both Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland in its remaining home matches, Israel will still likely need to at least draw in Portugal and for Cristiano Ronaldo and friends to slip up at home against Russia or versus Northern Ireland in Belfast.

Israel would have clearly found itself in a far more favorable position had it not conceded a 93rd-minute equalizer in Friday’s 3-3 draw against Portugal at Ramat Gan. However, the win in Northern Ireland at least ensures the blue-and-white can continue to dream of a first World Cup appearance in 44 years for another six months.

“We have come a long way since the 4-0 loss to Russia,” said Israel coach Eli Gutman following the victory in Belfast.

“We didn’t start the campaign well and I take all the responsibility for that.

It wasn’t that we weren’t prepared, but our tactics weren’t clear enough. I initially used the 4-4-2 formation I successfully implemented at Hapoel Tel Aviv, but soon understood that it wouldn’t work.

“We weren’t great against Northern Ireland, but we showed heart and tactical discipline. The national team has become a Gutman team where every player is disciplined and does his job.

We have a united dressing room and the players fought for each other, something which gives me a lot of confidence.”

Rafaelov echoed his coach’s sentiment.

“We didn’t play our best game, but we only cared about taking the points,” said the Club Brugge midfielder. “There has always been a good atmosphere in the Israel squad, but I can’t remember such a unified team.

“It wouldn’t be wise to make any statements about reaching the World Cup as we are undergoing a rebuilding process and hopefully that can continue.

“There is still a long and tough road to come and our results in the beginning of the campaign don’t leave us with much room for mistakes. However, we must continue to believe.”

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