ERAN ZAHAVI has scored four of Israel’s five total goals in the its first two games – a victory and a draw – of the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.
(photo credit: MAOR ELKASLASI)
“This was a huge moment in my career, I’m so happy,” Eran Zahavi told The Jerusalem Post just before taking a call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praising the Israeli marksman’s all-world evening.
“We are looking forward to and hoping that we will advance to the European Championship. That is where I really hope we will be at the end of this campaign.”
Israel has experienced very few games similar to its 4-2 win over Austria at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on Sunday night
. Thanks to Zahavi’s hat-trick, the blue-and-white turned the game on its head so quickly against one of Europe’s top-ranked squads it was dizzying.
What can you say about Zahavi? He’s still the Israel’s No. 1 player today, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
Give him the ball and he’ll know what to do with it. Challenge him and he’ll know exactly what he has to do. Great players rise to the occasion and Zahavi is no exception to the rule.
Zahavi, who currently plays his club football for Guangzhou R&F in China, returned to the Israel national team for the UEFA Nations League campaign after being suspended for throwing the captain’s armband to the ground at the same Sammy Ofer Stadium during a loss to Macedonia in September 2017, following which he said he was “retiring” from international soccer.
But all that will now be forgotten after his return performance at the “scene of the crime,” which will be talked about for decades to come as the superstar closed the book on a dreadful chapter in not only his career, but that of the blue-and-white as well.
“Eran will have the headlines and we know how good he is. That’s why we brought him back,” said Israel coach Andreas Herzog jubilantly. “It’s important for me more to talk about the team performance, but he made the difference. He has scored so many goals over the last couple years. What he did here was great for all of us.”
After Israel had drawn 1-1 against Slovenia on Purim in a game that saw Zahavi slot home the lone blue-and-white goal off a set piece to salvage a point to open the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Herzog put his star to the test against his nation of birth, Austria.
Each team was in desperate need of a victory – it became a must-win for Austria after it fell to Poland 1-0 as well as for Israel if it wanted to stay relevant for the balance of the campaign.
“When you have chances against a team like Austria or in other certain games, you need a player like Eran Zahavi who has great finishing skills,” said Herzog. “It was important to gain the momentum and we even had a chance to score a fifth goal.”
Herzog must see a bit of himself in Zahavi; a goal scorer with plenty of flair along with the knack of knowing when to score the big goals. Israel’s coach netted 26 tallies for his country in 103 appearances, including a critical unforgettable late-game strike against the blue-and-white at Ramat Gan Stadium, denying the Israelis the chance to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. An enemy of the state was created very quickly, but he was one who always knew how to take the bull by the horns and will his team to win.
Zahavi has so many of the same character traits that Herzog has that the similarities are striking.
“He’s a great player and has a great personality,” explained Israel’s Sports Director Willi Ruttensteiner. “Zahavi is a player who leads and motivates and pushes the other players. It was a good mental performance as well. We have a strong coach and a motivated coach. Herzog also is the player with the most caps for Austria and is in the top 10 in goals.”
Was Zahavi’s performance a surprise? Not so for Israeli soccer aficionados and especially supporters of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Take a look back to some of the biggest clutch games in his colorful career. Whether it was the 3-2 derby comeback win over Hapoel Tel Aviv, the 2-0 win at Viktoria Plzen in Champions League qualifying or in Basel when he scored a second away-goal in the 96th minute of a 2-2 draw that helped Maccabi advance to the Champions League Group Stages following a 1-1 draw at Bloomfield Stadium in Israel, Zahavi has always rose for the big moment and has never shied away from pressure. In fact, he thrived when put in the position to perform.
Some of the players who appeared with Zahavi against Austria played with him at Maccabi and witnessed his wizardry. Defensive midfielder Dor Peretz who helped begin the play for the tying goal in the Switzerland draw, looked at his knack of simply finding a way.
“Just like in Basel, there was a comeback feeling against Austria as well. What can I say?” asked Peretz.
“We are happy that he always gets the job done,” said defender Omri Ben Harush, who also played with Zahavi on Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Eli Dasa assisted on two of Zahavi’s goals and was all smiles to see his teammate find the back of the net off his helpers.
“We have played well together ever since our days at Maccabi and he once again scored some amazing goals.”
Zahavi will now return to China and reappear right before the next window of games when Israel visits Latvia and Poland in June.
The real question is whether Netanyahu will be the prime minister the next time Zahavi scores for Israel?
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