Israel captain Eran Zahavi celebrates after scoring the opener in last night’s win at Albania in 2018 World Cup qualification..
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Israel can all but accomplish its initial target in 2018 World Cup qualification on Sunday when it hosts Albania at Haifa Stadium.
The blue-and-white can open a sixpoint gap over Albania in the battle for third place with four matches to play in Group G by claiming a second victory over its rival after triumphing 3-0 in Shkoder in November.
Since Israel discovered back in July 2015 that it would be facing both Spain and Italy in the group, it was clear that its realistic goal should be to finish in third place. Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runner-ups to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Nevertheless, a third-place finish can help Israel improve its seeding and build confidence ahead of Euro 2020 qualification, to which 24 teams from the continent will qualify compared to 13 for the World Cup.
Saturday’s match will also be an ideal opportunity for the national team to prove its critics wrong. There is no doubt the score-line in the match at Albania was impressive, but the fact Israel played with a one-man advantage from the 19th minute and a two-man advantage from the 55th minute put it in a position from which it was expected to win.
Any illusion Israel may have had of finishing among the top two ended with a 3-1 defeat to Italy in its group opener, with the 4-1 loss to Spain in its most recent qualifier in March displaying once more the massive gulf between the blue-and-white and the top national teams in the world.
While he has so far met early expectations, at least as far as results, Israel coach Elisha Levy has still got little to show regarding the improvement he promised to bring to the side.
Israel only barely beat one of European soccer’s minnows in Liechtenstein, while requiring a 95th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to defeat Macedonia.
The first half of the campaign will become a distant memory though, should Israel display much-needed progress in performance in its final five qualifiers, starting with Sunday’s game against Albania.
Levy is set to use an almost identical lineup to the one which disappointed in a 1-1 draw in an international friendly with lowly Moldova last week.
Israel required a Ben Sahar stoppage- time penalty in Netanya last Tuesday to snatch a draw against a Moldova side that has only beaten San Marino and Andorra over the past three years.
Dudu Goresh will start in goal despite losing his place at Hapoel Beersheba. Eli Dasa will play on the right of the defense while Taleb Tawatha will start on the left. Shir Tzedek is also certain to play in the center of the defense and is likely to team-up with Eitan Tibi, who will replace Tal Ben-Haim. Ben-Haim was in the lineup against Moldova, but is doubtful with a stomach injury.
Almog Cohen, Bibras Natcho and Eyal Golasa are expected to play in the center of the field, with Lior Refaelov and Ben Sahar to attack off the flanks and provide support for Eran Zahavi.
“We didn’t play well against Moldova, but I hope we find the right combination against Albania and register a good result,” Levy said on Saturday.
“The pressure is on Albania,” added Zahavi. “We beat them on the road and we are planning to beat them tomorrow as well. I’m not sure that this match will decide third place, but it is certainly our most important match of the campaign.”
Despite the win in Albania, Zahavi doesn’t believe Israel should be regarded as the favorite against a team that qualified for Euro 2016.
“We really aren’t the favorites,” insisted Zahavi. “This is going to be a very difficult match. I hope we can put on a show for the crowd. Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t beat Moldova because it provided us with a wake up call.”
The 35-year-old Ben-Haim, who is ranked third all-time with 92 appearances, is Levy’s only injury concern after making his first appearance for Israel last week since an international friendly against Honduras in June 2014.
While some players preferred to avoid a call-up to the national team at the end of a grueling season, veterans Ben-Haim and Yossi Benayoun seemed almost as excited as those players making their debuts against Moldova last Tuesday.
The 37-year-old Benayoun improved his appearance record to 98 matches, coming on as a substitute in the 61st minute. He had played for the blueand- white only once in the past three years, in a friendly match against Croatia in March 2016.
“Benayoun wasn’t called up as a mark of respect,” said Zahavi. “He is here because he played well and deserves to be here. You learn so much simply by watching him. We all admire him.”