Israel v Italy - World Cup 2018 Qualifier - Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa, Israel .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After a week full of distractions, Israel’s national team needs to shift its focus back to the field when it visits Albania in 2018 World Cup qualifying action on Saturday.
Israel has six points from three matches in Group G, losing its opener against Italy 3-1 before defeating Macedonia and Liechtenstein by a 2-1 score. The blue-and-white has been far from impressive in its campaign to date and was fortunate to beat one of European soccer’s minnows in Liechtenstein, while requiring a 95th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Dudu Goresh to defeat Macedonia.
Israel’s showdown with Albania will likely go a long way to determining which team finishes in third place, assuming powerhouses Italy and Spain claim the top two spots as expected.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Albania is tied with Israel on six points, beating Macedonia 2-1 and Liechtenstein 2-0 before losing 2-0 to Spain. Italy and Spain lead the group with seven points each.
Much of Israel’s preparation for the match in Albania was overshadowed by security concerns. The game was moved from the northern city of Shkoder to a venue near the capital Tirana earlier this week following the uncovering of a terror plot.
Israel’s counter-terrorism bureau issued a statement saying that a number of people identified as having links to Islamic State militants had been arrested “in the Balkans” over the past week on the suspicion that they were planning attacks.
It said the Albania-Israel soccer fixture was one of the intended targets of the detained suspects and others connected to them, and advised Israeli fans not to travel to the match, citing a “Level 2... high, concrete threat”.
Albanian media quoted a prosecutor as saying that four suspects were arrested after security agencies checked information forwarded by the Israeli secret service.
Even before Tuesday’s announcement, the Israel squad was set to be escorted to Albania by an additional 15 security personnel, with a sniffer dog from the IDF’s Oketz Unit also traveling with the team.
Midfielder Nir Bitton wasn’t on the team’s flight to Albania after being thrown off the squad earlier Thursday.
Bitton clashed with coach Elisha Levy during the morning’s training session and was ordered to leave the Shefayim complex.
Bitton wasn’t expected to start in Albania, with Bibras Natcho, Neta Lavi and Almog Cohen set to play in the center of the midfield. Dudu Goresh will continue in goal, with Eli Dasa and Rami Gershon likely to start at right-back and left-back respectively. Shir Tzedek and Eitan Tibi will continue their partnership in the center of the defense.
Tomer Hemed will be the lone striker, with Eran Zahavi and Tal Ben- Haim to provide him with support from the midfield.