This past week, the Israel national soccer team was drawn into a six-team group in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying that will include Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Macedonia and Latvia.
Head coach Andreas Herzog himself an Austrian will face his country of birth in what will be a pair of interesting matches to say the least. Striker Robert Lewandowski of Poland is the star of the group while Slovenia features Atletico Madrid ’keeper Jan Oblak and Austria relies on Bayern Munich defender David Alaba.
With an expanded field of 24 teams, Israel will once again be put to test as an underdog following the UEFA Nations League tournament that saw it finish second to Scotland in its group.
Although the Euro 2020 group doesn’t feature some of the most attractive continental soccer countries such as England, France, Spain and Germany, all of the teams will be competitive and a challenge to overcome. Don’t let the names Slovenia, Macedonia and Latvia fool you; they are all threats to take wins home or away.
Qualifying begins in March with a Purim showdown in Israel against Slovenia on March 21 and will continue on Sunday March 24 at home against Austria.
Herzog knows that all eyes will be on him as a native Austrian who has scored a crucial goal against Israel.
“I won’t be able to score for Austria against Israel this time,” joked Herzog. I’m the head coach of Israel and will play against my home country of Austria, but we will be focused to win these games. It’s not an easy group but there are some teams who if they play at the highest level could make some good wins.”
Israel last faced Austria in 2002 World Qualifying and drew at home in the infamous match that
Herzog scored in the 92nd minute to earn a 1-1 draw. Austria didn’t advance out of its 2018
World Cup qualifying group and only collected one point at the 2016 Euro, so it will be super motivated this qualification campaign to make it up to the country and fans.
Along with Alaba, West Ham winger Marko Arnautovic and Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic will be the biggest threats.
Israel’s first opponent Slovenia shouldn’t be counted out either explained blue-and-white captain Bibras Natcho.
“It’s not a simple group in that it features a pair of strong national teams in Poland and Austria, while Slovenia isn’t a simple challenge as well.”
Slovenia has had some tough times of late and the last time it played in a major tournament was the 2010 World Cup. However, it does have a number of key personnel, including a top flight ’keeper in Jan Oblak who plies his trade at Atletico Madrid. In addition, Josip Ilicic and Jasmin Kurtic, who are both playing in Italy for Atalanta and SPAL, respectively, will be ones to watch. The last time Israel played Slovenia was a while back, in Euro 2004 qualifying, when the blue-and-white fell in Ljubljana.
After playing a pair of home contests, Israel will then travel to Latvia and Poland for the next two matches in June 2019, and Herzog knows that his side will be facing one of the group’s top sides.
“Poland and Austria are the favorites but we want to continue with our progress that we did in the Nations League. We will have to work hard but I think there are some chances to get some good wins.”
Poland has featured in the last three European Championships and also played in this past summer’s World Cup in Russia, where it failed to reach the knockout round in a group with Colombia, Japan and Senegal.
Jerzy Jozef Brzeczek, who once played for Maccabi Haifa, is Poland’s head coach and he will rely heavily on Bayern Munich’s super striker Robert Lewandowski, who has scored 55 goals in 102 appearances for his country. Piotr Zielinski from Napoli and youngster Krzysztof Piatek who plays for Genoa will also be counted on.
The last time the blue-and-white faced Poland in a competitive match was in 1995.
Natcho warned everyone that the first away match at Latvia won’t be an easy ride.
“No one should think that Latvia is a weak national team. This will be an interesting group because many teams are very even.”
Israel must take all six points from the two clashes with Latvia, and that won’t be a simple task as Israel has fallen to the Latvians in 2010 World Cup qualifying but did defeat them in 2012 Euro qualifying.
Macedonia is Israel’s final group opponent and one that it is very familiar with, after just playing it twice in World Cup qualifying, where the blue-and-white won away but fell at home to Goran Pandev’s national team as the Genoa striker scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win.
Eran Zahavi summed up the draw.
“This is a draw that gives us a legitimate chance to reach our potential. There isn’t one match that is hopeless but there also isn’t one that you can say is easy. We have to continue to play like we did in the Nations League where I felt there was a real change our national team. Our home matches must be a football celebration and if the fans cheer us on then Euro 2020 is a possibility for us.”
Herzog knows that there is plenty of work ahead but he is already plotting his course to take Israel to the promised land.
“The last couple of games we were ok, but we have to get better. We have to work hard and make progress offensively and defensively. During January, February and March we must stay in touch with all of the players so they are on the right path when the qualification starts in March. Hopefully we will have a good start to the campaign.”
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel Sports Adventures for tourists and residents. Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or visit www.sportsrabbi.com. Contact the Sports Rabbi via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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