Israel will have to reverse recent history if it’s to defeat Portugal in a
crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Friday
Blue-and-white coach Eli Gutman spoke of his squad’s
confidence on Thursday ahead of the encounter against Cristiano Ronaldo and
friends, but the national team hasn’t beaten a real rival for qualification for
a major tournament since the 20th century.
Israel defeated Russia 2-1 in
Euro 2008 qualifying when it no longer had a chance to progress, but its last
win in a meaningful encounter over a superior opponent was the famous 5-0
thrashing of Austria in June 1999.
Gutman’s side was crushed 4-0 by
Russia in Ramat Gan in its first home match in Group F in September, and while
it resurrected its campaign by thrashing Luxembourg twice in October, the
blue-and-white will have little chance of a top-two finish should it fail to
defeat Portugal on Friday.
The Portuguese have struggled of late,
defeating Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in their first two matches in Group F, but
losing 1-0 at Russia and drawing 1-1 at home with Northern Ireland over five
days in October.
“I feel that the players are confident and composed and
know exactly what they are up against,” a calm Gutman said on Thursday. “I’m
really enjoying the moment, but I’m aware that ultimately we will be judged by
the result we record.”
All in all, Portugal has failed to win its last
four matches, suffering a humbling 3-2 defeat in a friendly against Ecuador in
Guimaraes in February.
Portugal is in dire need of Ronaldo’s heroics as
it lags third in the group, behind Israel on goal difference and five points
adrift of group leader Russia.
Ronaldo netted the goal that sent Real
Madrid through to the last eight of the Champions League against Manchester
United and grabbed a double at Celta Vigo before finding the back of the net
once more against RCD Mallorca this past Saturday to take his league tally for
the season to 27 goals in 27 matches.
The superstar has scored 50 goals
in 60 matches in all competitions for Real Madrid and Portugal this season, but
Gutman remains just as wary of the other 10 Portuguese players who will take the
field alongside Ronaldo on Friday.
“Portugal isn’t just about Ronaldo,”
said Gutman of Paulo Bento’s squad, which also includes the likes of Madrid
stars Fabio Coentrao and Pepe, as well as Raul Meireles, Helder Postiga and Hugo
Almeida. “We will have to play as a cohesive unit if we are to deny
Gutman’s lineup for Friday is set to consist of Dudu Aouate in
goal, Yuval Spungin, Rami Gershon, Eitan Tibi and Tal Ben-Haim on defense, with
Shiran Yeini to make his debut for the national team as a defensive midfielder
with the specific role of keeping a close eye on Ronaldo.
Eran Zahavi and Maor Melikson are expected to play in the midfield, while Eden
Ben-Basat and Tomer Hemed are likely to be given the opportunity to continue
their fruitful partnership up front, with Ben-Basat to begin the match on the
Captain Yossi Benayoun looks set to start the encounter on the
bench, but remains upbeat regarding the national team’s chances on
“When I first joined the team in 1998 no one promised me that I
would always be in the starting lineup and I’m here for the national team
whether I play for a minute or 90 minutes,” said Benayoun, who is only four
appearances shy of equaling Arik Benado’s Israel record of 94 caps and is also
ranked second all-time with his 24 goals for the blue-and-white.
facing an excellent team which will be entering the match as a firm favorite.
However, we are trying to focus on our own play and we are hoping that will be
prove to be enough to record a positive result.”