The Israeli sports world has obsessed over one question during the past week.
Does Eli Gutman deserve to continue as Israel coach? The answers have varied from “absolutely not” to “most certainly yes” and everything in between.
However, the more real and relevant question that should be asked is practical rather than emotional.
Namely, is Eli Gutman the best man to lead Israel in its campaign to qualify for Euro 2016? Deserving or not, is there a coach out there, willing to guide the national team, who would provide the blue-and-white a better chance than Gutman of reaching the championships in France?
It is easy to fault Gutman on Israel’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. While the team’s third-place finish behind Russia and Portugal and failure to advance to the World Cup was hardly surprising, the blue-and-white’s displays in many of the qualifiers were a bitter disappointment.
Apart from its two emphatic wins over rock-bottom Luxembourg, Israel managed just one victory from eight matches.
The 2-0 triumph over Northern Ireland in Belfast was certainly a cause for celebration, as were the two draws against Portugal.
However, the two stalemates with Azerbaijan, the two emphatic defeats against Russia and finally the frustrating home draw vs Northern Ireland in the last qualifier last week meant the side recorded its worst campaign since Euro 2004 qualification.
Israel did manage to score 19 goals, its second- best tally of all-time behind the 25 goals netted in Euro 2000 qualification.
However, Gutman’s men also registered the national team’s second-worst defensive campaign, conceding 14 goals. The only time Israel allowed more goals in a campaign was way back in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers when the blue-and-white let in 27 goals and finished bottom of its group.
Gutman was quick to admit on several occasions that it took him time to adjust to his new role and that he was surprised by the vast difference between coaching a club side and a national team.
His inexperience showed in the fact that he used 35 different players in the campaign, more than his past three predecessors in the job, and the third most among the 53 teams which participated in the UEFA qualifying groups.
The success of small nations like Bosnia, which qualified automatically for Brazil after winning its group, and especially Iceland, which will face Croatia in the playoffs, brought many to question how come a bigger and richer country like Israel can not reach such a level of accomplishment.
After all, there are less than four million people in Bosnia and a mere 320,000 in Iceland.
However, a quick look at the squads of Bosnia and Iceland leaves little doubt regarding the real problem of Israeli soccer.
Bosnia boasts stars from the biggest leagues in Europe, including the likes of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, Rome’s Miralem Pjanic and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibisevic. Even Iceland has two players from the English Premier League, two more from Italy’s Serie A and four from the Dutch league.
In Israel’s lineup in the 1-1 draw at Portugal last week, there were only four players who even practice their craft abroad, and that includes Dudu Aouate (RCD Mallorca) and Tal Ben-Haim (Standard Liege) who have only featured intermittently for their respective clubs this season.
With all due respect to the local league, Israel’s current players are simply not good enough to become stars even in mediocre European leagues like Belgium and consequently are also not good enough to lead the side to a World Cup.
There is plenty of talent in the Israel squad, and Gutman will be the first to admit that.
However, in order to overcome superior sides, this current crop of players needs to perform far better than the sum of its parts.
Gutman believes he can achieve that, even though the evidence from the past campaign may suggest the contrary.
Thanks to UEFA, Israel’s chances of reaching a major tournament for the first time since the 1970 World Cup will be better than ever in Euro 2016 after it was decided to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams.
The exact format has yet to be confirmed, but regardless of what is ultimately decided, this is an opportunity Israel simply can not squander.
Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon has vowed to take his time with the decision regarding the next coach, with Gutman’s contract running until January and the Euro 2016 qualifying draw not being held until February.
However, after making the mistake of not handing Gutman a four-year deal to start with that would have given him the peace of mind to rebuild the blue-and-white, Luzon should call Gutman this morning to notify him that he will remain at the helm.
Throughout his career, Gutman’s methodical approach has only flourished in time and to start from scratch with a new coach would be a hammer’s blow to Israel’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016.
The unequivocal backing Gutman received from several of his players has also proved that he has built a strong relationship with the squad.
But just as importantly, there is simply no savior waiting to ride in and take charge.
The unemployed Avram Grant is rumored to be interested in the position, but he already had his chance between 2002 and 2006 and there’s no reason to revisit the past.
The latest buzz has agent Avi Nimni and Israel youth team coach Eli Ohana taking over the team, but such appointments would be akin to an official announcement by the IFA that it has given up all hope and is willing to try out even the most ludicrous ideas.
Every one of Israel’s coaches over the past two decades who has been given another chance has gone on to achieve greater success with the team in his second campaign.
There is no reason to believe Gutman would be any different. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Gutman in particular would prosper in the long term.
It is very easy to reason why Gutman doesn’t deserve two more years as Israel coach.
But is there really anyone out there who would give the national team a better chance of reaching Euro 2016?
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