Lior Refaelov (left) is the favorite to be handed the final available attacking role for tonight’s 2018 World Cup qualifier in Spain, while forward Tal Ben-Haim (right) is all but guaranteed to be in the starting lineup for coach Elisha Levy’s team..
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Knowing anything but a heavy defeat would be regarded as a surprise, Israel’s national team is in a relaxed mood entering Friday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Spain in Gijon.
Israel is just a single point behind Spain and Italy in Group G, picking up nine of a possible 12 points from four matches to date, beating Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Albania, while losing to Italy.
But with only the winners of each group to qualify automatically for Russia 2018, while the eight best runners-up will advance to home-and-away playoffs, the blue-and-white is realistically targeting third place behind the winners of two of the last three World Cup tournaments.
Israel is well placed to do that and improve its seeding ahead of Euro 2020 qualification, with Albania and Macedonia still to visit the Holy Land.
Israel had been far from impressive in its campaign until winning in Albania in its most recent qualifier back in November. It barely beat one of European soccer’s minnows in Liechtenstein, while requiring a 95th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to defeat Macedonia.
But the victory over Albania has given the national team some breathing space, meaning it is under no pressure in Gijon, even with anti-Israel protests planned before and during the match.
Last year, the Gijon city council passed an extreme anti-Israel resolution declaring itself “a space free of Israeli apartheid.”
The Gijon town hall was forced to cancel its year-long boycott against Israel due to the combined political and legal pressure of local civic groups, but the BDS campaigners nevertheless plan to be out in force outside the El Molinon Stadium.
Israel coach Elisha Levy insisted his players will not be affected by everything going on off the pitch, especially as they managed to beat Albania after the venue of the game was changed at the last moment due to the uncovering of a terror plot.
Levy is far more concerned with finding a way to slow down the Spain attack, which has scored 15 goals in its first four qualifiers, including eight against Liechtenstein and four against Macedonia.
“There is nothing wrong with focusing on defending,” said Levy. “All of our players will be committed to defending, but we will do everything to make sure we also have some possession and not allow Spain to dominate. We need to play with the right attitude and not capitulate under Spain’s pressure. We have started our campaign well and we want to keep it alive.”
With goalkeeper Dudu Goresh, who started in the team’s first four qualifiers, being suspend-ed, Levy announced on Thursday that Ofir Marciano will replace him in goal.
The back-four of Eli Dasa, Shir Tzedek, Eitan Tibi and Rami Gershon is set to start again, with Almog Cohen and Bibras Natcho to play in the center of the field.
Eran Zahavi is expected to be the team’s lone striker, with forward Tal Ben-Haim likely to start on the flank, leaving Levy with two remaining dilemmas.
Dan Einbinder, Sheran Yeini and Nir Bitton are fighting for the place alongside Cohen and Natcho in the midfield, while Lior Refaelov, Ben Sahar and Itay Shechter are all in contention for the remaining attacking role on the flank.
“Our main focus is to get points against Israel. We need to convey the importance of this game,” said Spain coach Julen Lopetegui, who has all his big guns at his disposal.
“They have good players and they are a competitive team. We know how difficult they are, we have to perform well. We absolutely respect Israel and I’m sure that they are also going to be respected by the city of Gijon.”