Israel's national team coach Eli Gutman.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Israel coach Eli Gutman is confident Eran Zahavi can translate his unstoppable form for Maccabi Tel Aviv to the national team, starting with Thursday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Andorra at Sammy o fer Stadium in Haifa.
The blue-and-white currently sits in fourth place in Group B with nine points from six matches following three consecutive defeats. The top two and the best third-placed team from the nine qualifying groups advance automatically to the finals in France, with the remaining eight third-placed sides to play a home-and- away playoff for four berths.
Three days after facing minnow Andorra which has lost all six of its qualifiers to date by a combined goal difference of 3-23, Israel visits first-place Wales on Sunday. On October 10, Israel welcomes Cyprus before completing its qualifying campaign at Belgium three days later.
The blue-and-white will likely need to draw at least one of the matches in Wales or Belgium to finish in third place and book a playoff berth. However, that is only while taking into account that Israel also beats both Andorra and Cyprus at home.
“We are entering the final stretch of the campaign. A campaign that began superbly with three straight wins and continued with three painful defeats,” said Gutman on Monday. “This is money time. My players will be ready and motivated for the match against Andorra just as they were in all the qualifiers so far.”
While even a lineup consisting of second-string players should easily overcome Andorra on Thursday, Israel will likely require Zahavi at his his best to have any chance against Wales.
Zahavi continued his sensational early-season form on Sunday, securing Maccabi Tel Aviv yet another significant win after scoring the only goal of the match in a 1-0 victory over Hapoel Beersheba at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
Zahavi found the back of the net for a fifth straight match over all competitions, taking his tally over the past two weeks to eight goals, including all three of Maccabi’s goals against FC Basel in the Champions League playoffs, leading the yellow-and- blue to the group stage.
However, he has so far struggled to scale the same peaks with the national team, netting just three goals in 26 matches, including only one in six Euro 2016 qualifiers.
“Zahavi has upgraded himself as a player,” said Gutman. “I’m very happy with his contribution to the campaign so far and I have no doubt that he will leave his mark on this campaign.”
Zahavi is one of eight Maccabi Tel Aviv players named by Gutman in his 24-man squad. Legionnaires Rami Gershon, Omer Damari, Lior Refaelov and Sheran Yeini all missed out due to injury, with Elyaniv Barda asking to be released due to a family occasion.
Hapoel Beersheba midfielder Maor Melikson is back in the squad and is set to make his first appearance for Israel since m arch 2014.
“I have the privilege to call up a player in place of any injured player and everyone in the squad deserves to be in the national team,” said Gutman. “I know exactly how I want to play against Wales, but we first need to focus on the match against Andorra.”