(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Israel national team coach Eli Gutman insisted that the door remains open for Yossi Benayoun to be called up for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Wales and Belgium later this month, even though he missed out on a place in the preliminary squad which trained in Shefayim on Wednesday.
The training session, which was held without any of the Israelis who play abroad, marked the beginning of the blue-and-white’s preparations for the crucial qualifiers, with the squad to assemble once more next Wednesday.
Gutman will announce the squad for the matches a day later. Israel hosts Wales at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on March 28 before facing Belgium at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem three days later.
Israel leads Group B with a perfect nine points from three matches, with Wales in second place, one point back from four games, while favorite Belgium has five points from its first three contests.
The top two in each group qualify automatically along with the best third-place finisher, while the remaining eight third-place teams go into a playoff.
“It has been three months since the game against Bosnia and that is a long time in soccer,” said Gutman. “Some players are not in the same form they were then, but others are in better form.”
Gutman said Eliran Atar, who has scored four goals in his past four matches for Maccabi Haifa, did the right thing by choosing to return to Israel from French club Reims, but wouldn’t go into his reasons for leaving him or Benayoun off the squad.
“Atar made the right decision by coming back to Israel,” said Gutman.
“The door is open for him and every other player I follow. But all the decisions regarding the squad are made according to our game plan.”
Wales, which hasn’t reached a major tournament since qualifying for the World Cup finals in 1958, has so far beaten Andorra and Cyprus while drawing with Bosnia and Belgium.
“Most of the Wales team plays in the Premier League. We have no right to take them lightly,” said Gutman. “However, we have a group of guys that put their egos aside for the national team. The guys know that their only chance against such opponents is to play as a team.”
Wales superstar Gareth Bale hasn’t been at his best for Real Madrid over recent weeks, but that has only made Gutman even more worried.
“I think he is saving himself for the national team,” he said. “He seems to be far more committed when he plays for Wales. If we give Bale space we’ll be doomed.”