Israel's national team coach Eli Gutman.
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Israel coach Eli Gutman insisted on Wednesday that the national team will settle for nothing but victory in next Friday’s Euro 2016 qualifying opener in Cyprus.
Gutman held a training session with 14 of the 25 players he called up for the qualifiers against Cyprus and Andorra in Shefayim on Wednesday, with the players based abroad to join their teammates next week.
With most local clubs giving their players some time off until after Yom Kippur, Gutman decided to hold training sessions on Wednesday and Thursday before the full squad reassembles on Sunday.
Following the postponement of the national team’s first qualifier against Belgium from September 9 to March 31, 2015, Israel will begin its campaign in Nicosia next Friday before visiting Andorra three days later.
Cyprus stunned Bosnia 2-1 on the road in their first qualifier last month, but Gutman has every confidence in his side.
“We will travel to Cyprus with the aim of winning the match in order to create some positive momentum,” he said. “We are going there to win, not to avoid defeat. I’m optimistic and confident because we have a very interesting combination of players on the squad. On the one hand, they are young, but on the other they are experienced enough to complete this mission.”
Nevertheless, Gutman insisted that he expects a stern test against Cyprus.
“I think Cypriot soccer is undergoing very significant progress,” he said. “As someone who coached there in the past I can say that they have improved a lot.”
Gutman hinted that he is thinking of starting with a lineup almost identical to the one which beat Honduras 4-2 in the blue-and-white’s most recent friendly at the start of June.
Ariel Harush began that match in goal, with Omri Ben-Harush, Eitan Tibi, Tal Ben-Haim and Yuval Spungin playing in defense. Sheran Yeini and Bibras Natcho started as defensive midfielders, while Eran Zahavi, Tal Ben-Haim and Gili Vermut played in more attacking midfield positions and Omer Damari was the lone striker.
Spungin wasn’t even called up for the upcoming qualifiers due to injury, but 10 of those 11 players could well start next Friday.
Maccabi Haifa’s Eyal Meshumar is the favorite to replace Spungin.
Gutman’s biggest dilemma is the goalkeeper’s position, with Ariel Harush failing to cement his place as Dudu Aouate’s successor in the team’s recent friendlies.
Aouate started every one of Israel’s qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup, but Gutman is still searching for his new fulltime stopper.
Ashdod SC’s Ofir Martziano is considered to be Harush’s main challenger for the starting role and Gutman said on Wednesday that he will already notify the players by Sunday who will be in goal for the match against Cyprus.
“All you have in international soccer is your last match and our last match against Honduras was pretty good,” he said. “I have a plan for the match against Cyprus but I’ll wait until Sunday and Monday until I make my final decisions.”
Gutman explained that he decided not to call up Yossi Benayoun as he has only just recovered from a knee injury, while claiming that he had no place for Eden Ben-Basat as he is struggling for form.
“Following Cyrpus’s win in Bosnia this is set to be a very tight group, apart from Belgium,” said Gutman. “Teams will lose points in different matches so nothing will be decided in our first or second match.
Even if we pick up all six points it will mean nothing. The most important thing for a coach is his belief in his players and I believe in my players.”