With its hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1970 effectively over, Israel’s qualifier at Russia on Tuesday evening takes on a new significance.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan at National Stadium in Ramat Gan ended any realistic chance the blue-and-white had of reaching next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, leaving Israel to play for pride and third position in its remaining three qualifiers.
However, the next three matches will also go a long way to determining if coach Eli Gutman will have his contract extended for two more years until the end of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and if under-fire goalkeeper Dudu Aouate will restore his reputation or perhaps see his international career come to an end next month.
Gutman, who was only given a two-year contract when he took charge of the side last January, seemed all but certain to get at least two more years at the helm after the encouraging performances against Portugal and Northern Ireland.
However, the dejecting draw against Azerbaijan has thrown his future into turmoil, and even though no one is now expecting him to guide the team to a top-two finish, a positive ending to the qualifying campaign would help his chances of continuing as Israel coach.
After claiming in recent months that he believed Israel could stun the Russians, Gutman said on Saturday that he is just hoping his squad will avoid an “embarrassment” in St. Petersburg.
Israel was thrashed 4-0 by Russia in Ramat Gan a year ago and a similar outcome on Tuesday will be particularly bad news for Gutman as it would mean that this campaign will mainly be remembered for humbling defeats to Russia and disappointing draws against Azerbaijan.
Besides still being without seven injured players, including strikers Tomer Hemed and Eden Ben-Basat, who have accounted for 10 of the team’s 16 goals in Group F, Gutman will also have to manage on Tuesday without defensive anchor Eitan Tibi, who is suspended after being booked against Azerbaijan.
Dekel Keinan is expected to replace Tibi in the starting lineup and Gutman is set to make several other changes to the team, with striker Elyaniv Barda likely to replace Itay Shechter and midfielder Lior Rafaelov favored to come in for Hen Ezra.
Despite the criticism, goalkeeper Dudu Aouate will start once more and make his 76th appearance for Israel.
“There’s no doubt that this is a much tougher match, but the players are mature enough to understand that they need to quickly forget about the draw against Azerbaijan if we have any intention of recording a good result versus Russia,” said midfielder Gal Alberman, who could lose his place in the lineup on Tuesday.
“We have outstanding players but we experienced a bad day against Azerbaijan. We must try to be a worthy opponent for Russia and perhaps even pick up a point or three.”