Israel national team midfielders Maor Buzaglo (left) and Eran Zahavi embrace striker Eliran Atar (center) after he scored the side’s third goal in the 3-0 win over Albania on Saturday..
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
The Israel national team’s return home from Albania was delayed by almost 10 hours on Sunday due to a plane malfunction.
However, that did little to damper the spirits of the squad following the 3-0 win the previous night.
Israel moved to nine points with its third victory from four matches in 2018 World Cup qualifying Group G after Albania had two players sent off.
Defender Berat Xhimshiti received a red card in the 18th minute and goalkeeper Etrit Berisha was given his marching orders 10 minutes into the second half.
Israel captain Eran Zahavi was involved in both incidents, being fouled in the first and headbutted in the second.
The blue-and-white opened a threepoint gap over Albania in the battle for third place, while sitting one point back of leaders Spain and Italy.
Since Israel discovered who it would be facing in the group back in July 2015, it was clear that its realistic goal should be to finish in third place.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs. Nevertheless, a third-place finish can help Israel improve its seeding ahead of Euro 2020 qualification.
The blue-and-white had been far from impressive in its campaign until Saturday, barely beating one of European soccer’s minnows in Liechtenstein, while requiring a 95th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to defeat Macedonia.
Coach Elisha Levy said before the match that he would be happy to settle for a draw against Albania, which played in Euro 2016, but goals from Zahavi (18), Dan Einbinder (66) and Eliran Atar (83) gave Israel a convincing win that leaves it in an ideal position to end the group in third.
Israel still has to host both Albania and Macedonia and will also be confident of defeating Liechtenstein on the road.
However, in its next match on March 24, 2017, the national team will first and foremost be hoping to avoid a heavy defeat when it visits Spain.
“We have nothing to lose against Spain,” said Zahavi. “Even if we lose by two or three goals no one will be surprised.”
Despite being only one point back of the top two, Israel’s players have no illusions regarding their chances of qualification.
“From day one we said that we are targeting third place,” explained midfielder Bibras Natcho. “Italy and Spain are better than us and they will qualify. We are playing for third place.”