Israel soccer remains on a high following the blue-and-white’s 4-2 victory over Austria in Euro 2020 qualifying a couple of weeks ago. The national team took four out of a possible six points over the two matches held at Sammy Ofer Stadium, with the first contest ending in a 1-1 draw against Slovenia.
While Israel basks in the glory of perhaps its biggest international win since defeating Austria 5-0 back in 1999, there is still a long road ahead for the team to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.
Temporary euphoria has been experienced before, just a couple of years ago when Israel sank Bosnia 3-0 or when Avraham Grant’s blue-and-white went undefeated in the 2006 World Cup qualifying, but failed to advance to a playoff position.
So cautious optimism should be on tap for Israel after just two qualifying contests.
Israel’s head coach Andreas (or Andi) Herzog, who orchestrated a successful start to the campaign, spoke exclusively to The Jerusalem Post about a myriad of topics after the first two games of the campaign.
“It was huge for my players, they had such a great performance,” said Herzog. “Of course we had some key moments when we were lucky, but on the other hand after 35-40 minutes we took over and scored some great goals. The performance in the second half was really, really good when you consider we played against Austria, which is a really good team.”
Eran Zahavi’s hat-trick and assist will go down as one of the great all-time performances for a national team player, especially due to the fact that it was against a team such as Austria and not versus the likes of Malta or San Marino.
“Eran will deservingly dominate the headlines,” noted Herzog. “We all know how good he is. That’s why we brought him back. It’s more important for me to talk about the team performance, but obviously 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.”
One of the keys, perhaps, was the fitness of Herzog’s players and their ability to press the opponent following the Slovenia draw.
“We were able to keep the tempo high even after just two days of rest,” explained the 50-year-old coach from Austria. “The players were playing in higher positions and they had a great game.”
The other star of the show was ’keeper Ariel Harush. Without the backup Beersheba netminder, Israel may have easily lost, especially after a number of reflex saves in the first half.
“Harush and the back line were the main reasons why we were up by one at halftime, and at that point Austria was the better team,” said Herzog. “My team came back from a 1-0 deficit and that’s even more important for me. The character of never giving up and sticking together when times are tough was really, really nice to see.”
Prior to the match, however, it wasn’t clear if Harush would start because he hadn’t played in a couple of months for his club team, and any time you decide to use a player who hasn’t played in some time you’re taking a risk.
“Harush didn’t play the last two months so there is always a question,” said Herzog. “I know that he is a really good ’keeper, but on the other hand you don’t really know what form he is in. For me it was very important to see him in training with Klaus Lindenberger, the goalkeeper coach. I asked Klaus what he was feeling and he said that he has a really good feeling and the decision was made to play him.”
One of Herzog’s advantages with Israel is that he has exclusively worked in a national team framework and not with a club. Preparation in that context is totally different and that experience will be crucial going forward for the balance of the campaign.
“Coaching a club team compared to a national team is kind of a different situation,” said Herzog. “As a national coach you don’t have so much time and you come together for a maximum of three days of training.
“So you have to have the most important tactical things and objectives all ready to go. Then you need to find a way to implement them in a way that doesn’t overextend the players. With only two or three days, you have to be careful to not be focused on high-pressure tactics all the time. For a club coach that has a team for three to five weeks of preparation before the season starts it’s a completely different situation.”
With preparation being at the top of the priority list, Herzog knows that Israel must be ready to go when it heads out for two very tricky away ties in June at Latvia and Poland.
“We have to have great preparation for the next two games because this will be difficult,” said Herzog. “The game in Latvia will be a different type of game, but with every success we grow as a team, develop and get more and more confidence as a team which can be very important for the next games ahead.”
Since the domestic seasons around Europe end during the month of May and there will be a few weeks until the actual matches, Herzog is also aware that organizing a training regimen for each player will also be critical.
“At the end of the season we have to train each player individually, but there’s still two months to go and we have to make sure we are very organized for that.”
Herzog believes that the Israeli fans will play a critical role in the three remaining home games and they were definitely rewarded for their loyalty over the first pair of contests.
“They certainly got their money’s worth against Austria and the atmosphere at Sammy Ofer was really, really good. I hope that we can get some good and huge points away so that the next game at home will be a sellout.”
Ultimately, however, the players are the ones who have to produce on the pitch and while the coach certainly a huge factor in the team’s success, Herzog maintains that “my players deserve all the credit and they did a good job. We will go for it.”
Herzog is very aware that success also breeds expectations.
“We know we have to work harder and harder because with more success the expectations get higher, including my own, from my players.”
Thanks to the win over Austria, is the sky the limit for the Israel national team?
“I’m always optimistic, but I also have to analyze everything,” said Herzog cautiously. “We know we had a great game against Austria, but there were key moments where we made some mistakes and Austria didn’t score. At the end, the most important thing is that my team showed great character. We’ve seen this over the last few games and now we have to continue and work harder.”
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