While Israel will only be playing the first of six Euro- Basket 2015 qualifiers on Sunday, the outcome of the encounter against Montenegro in Nicosia, Cyprus will likely go a long way to determining if the blue-and-white advances to a 12th straight European Championship.
With three games on the road to follow the contest against Montenegro, which was moved to Cyprus due to the security situation, Israel could quickly find itself in a deep hole which it may struggle to overcome should it lose its first home game.
After looking forward to playing in front of thousands of supportive fans, the Israel roster will face Montenegro in an almost empty arena on Sunday, with only around 300 blue-and-white fans expected at the game.
However, throughout their preparations for the qualifying campaign, the Israel players stressed time and again that there will be no excuse should they fail to progress from Group B, which also includes the Netherlands and Bulgaria.
Israel is aiming to win its group, although the six-best second-place finishers will also advance directly to next summer’s tournament.
Following the first qualifier against Montenegro, Israel will play three consecutive road games versus the Netherlands (Aug 13), Bulgaria (Aug 17) and Montenegro (Aug 20). It will then finish the campaign with two home encounters in Cyprus against the Netherlands (August 24) and Bulgaria (August 27).
Israel will be facing Montenegro for a third straight qualifying campaign, with the blue-and-white winning just one of the previous four meetings over the past four years.
Montenegro is expected to be Israel’s main rival for first place in Group B, even though it will be playing without NBA stars Nikola Pekovic and Nikola Vucevic, as well as the nationalized Tyrese Rice.
“Montenegro is the toughest obstacle we face in this group which means we will have to be as ready as possible on Sunday,” said Israel coach Erez Edelstein. “They are a very physical team which plays a lot of pick-and-roll and has big men who can shoot from distance so we will have to be at our best defensively.”
The Israel roster will spend much of the next 18 days traveling and Edelstein is concerned it may end up affecting his players.
“The traveling and flying isn’t easy for the players, mentally and physically,” he explained. “A player is used to relaxing after a game, but we will be flying back to Israel right after the game and on Monday we will already be leaving for the Netherlands.
We aren’t even sure we will have enough time for a training session after the game so we are just trying to take it one game at a time.”
The injured Alex Chubrevich and Jake Cohen didn’t fly with the team to Cyprus and Edelstein will have to drop one more player ahead of the game against Montenegro.
Edelstein will likely choose to leave out one of his guards, with Gal Mekel, Afik Nissim, Yuval Naimi, Raviv Limonad, Yotam Halperin, Nitzan Hanochi and Dagan Yavzuri giving him more than enough options in the backcourt.
Omri Casspi, Lior Eliyahu, Elishay Kadir and Guy Pnini will play as forwards, with D’or Fischer and Yaniv Green to share duties at center.
“Montenegro is an excellent team,” said Mekel. “This is undoubtedly the strongest team we will face in qualifying.
It is very important that we get the campaign off on the right foot. A win can give us a big push. We are excited and are fully focused on qualifying for the European Championships.”