Israel officially begins its preparations for its Euro 2016 qualifying campaign when it hosts Slovakia in an international friendly in Netanya on Wednesday night.
The national team doesn’t host Belgium in its first qualifier until September 9, but coach Eli Gutman will be looking to make the most of his team’s friendlies to mold the core of the side which is aiming to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1970.
Israel was drawn to face Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Wales, Cyprus and Andorra in Group B, with the qualifiers to be played from September of this year until October 2015.
For the first time in the tournament’s history, the European Championships, to be held in France, will involve 24 nations, eight more than previous events.
Therefore, the top two teams in each group will automatically advance to Euro 2016, with the best third-placed finisher to also gain direct qualification. The remaining eight third-placed teams will take part in play-offs during November 2015.
“I was very encouraged by what I saw in this morning’s training session,” said Gutman on Tuesday. “The players practiced with a very serious attitude and were really professional.”
Gutman believes Slovakia will provide an excellent challenge, especially ahead of the qualifiers against Wales and its star Gareth Bale.
“The fact Slovakia won at Bosnia in the previous campaign tells you everything you need to know about that team,” he said. “We will try and neutralize Slovakia’s star Marek Hamsik, who plays in a very similar role to the one Bale does for Wales.”
Apart from one player, the entire Slovakia squad plies its trade outside the local league.
Coach Jan Kozak’s squad includes familiar names like Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and Napoli’s highly rated midfielder Marek Hamsik. Slovakia reached the 2010 World Cup, its only appearance in a major tournament since gaining independence from Czechoslovakia in 1992. It finished 2014 World Cup qualifying Group G in third place behind Bosnia and Greece.
Gutman revealed on Tuesday the formation he plans to use against Slovakia and throughout the qualifying campaign. The coach said Israel will play with three midfielders in the center and one out-and-out striker, with two players to start on the flanks. One of those wingers will become a second striker when the team attacks and the other will play a more central role.
The three central midfielders on Wednesday are set to be the defensive-orientated Shiran Yeini, his Maccabi Tel Aviv teammate Eran Zahavi and Bibras Natcho. Lior Refaelov is likely to play on one flank while Eden Ben-Basat will become the team’s second striker when it surges forward and retreat to defense when the blue-and-white is on the back-foot.
Omer Damari is expected to be the lone striker.
Tal Ben-Haim will start in the center of the defense and serve as the team’s captain, despite only being called up on Monday after Eitan Tibi suffered a muscle strain in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 2-0 win over Hapoel Ra’anana.
Ben-Haim was initially snubbed by Gutman after making just eight Belgian league appearances for Standard Liege this season, the last of which back in December.
“Every time I put on the Israel shirt I am very excited,” Ben-Haim said. “When I was a child this is what I dreamed of and nothing is better than representing your country.”