Lior Rafaelov 311.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It may have seemed all but impossible two months ago, but should Israel defeat
Latvia in Riga on Saturday night, it would have a real chance of reaching Euro
The 2-1 victory over Latvia at Bloomfield Stadium on March 26
followed by the 1-0 home win over Georgia three days later catapulted the
national team into third place in Group F with 10 points from six matches, just
one point behind leader Greece, which has played one game fewer.
straight victory on Saturday would leave Israel with everything to play for
entering September’s home encounter with the Greeks, but considering past
experiences, everyone on the team is first and foremost focused on taking all
three points in Riga.
Israel had to toil to claim a home victory over the
Latvians just over two months ago, with Biram Kiyal netting the winner with his
head in the 81st minute.
And no one on the team will soon forget the
blows Latvia struck to the blueand- white’s 2010 World Cup qualifying
After a promising start to the campaign, Dror Kashtan’s side
took the lead in Riga via a Yossi Benayoun goal, only for Vladimirs Kolesnicenko
to break Israel’s hearts with a last minute equalizer.
Latvia then handed
Israel an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at National Stadium in Ramat Gan in the
reverse fixture in September 2009 to officially end its hopes of reaching the
World Cup, so it should be of little surprise that the blueand- white camp is
especially wary ahead of Saturday.
“Everyone understands the importance
of this match,” coach Luis Fernandez said. “We had to work very hard to beat
Latvia at Bloomfield and the last time we played in Riga the match ended in a
draw so we know we are facing a very tough mission.”
Fernandez once more
has plenty of key players injured, with Biram Kiyal, Elyaniv Barda, Gili Vermut
and Itai Shechter all to sit out on Saturday night.
But at least captain
Benayoun is fit to return to the starting lineup after only playing a total of
19 minutes off the bench in Israel’s last two qualifiers.
“I’ve come back
from a complicated injury,” said the 31-year-old Chelsea midfielder, who was out
for six months with an Achilles injury. “But we are all aware of how crucial
this match is.”
Latvia has only managed to pick up four points from its
first five qualifiers, but coach Aleksandrs Starkovs hopes his side’s blend of
youth and experience can lift it to victory after its poor start to Group
“We’re not in the best position,” Starkovs said. “We have shown
improvement recently, but Israel will be buoyed by its recent results. Israel
looks to be the stronger team on paper, but we will be aiming to win the match
and anything is possible.”