(photo credit: ERAN LUF)
With six qualifiers still to come after Saturday’s showdown with Wales at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, it is hard to label the match as a must-win contest for the Israel national team.
However, a closer examination of the blue-and-white’s remaining fixtures shows that a fourth straight victory to start the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign will already all but ensure Israel at least a place in a head-to- head playoff for a berth in France.
Israel currently leads the group with a perfect nine points from three matches and holds a seven-point lead over Bosnia- Herzegovina, which has played one more match.
Assuming Israel goes on to overcome Cyprus and Andorra at home and picks up just three more points from its four matches against Wales and Belgium, Bosnia will need to win all of its remaining games, including against Belgium on the road and Israel at home, to finish ahead of Eli Gutman’s team.
The unlikeliness of that scenario means Israel is well on course to at least finish in third place, with Wales shaping up to be its likely rival for second. Led by Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, Wales is currently second to Israel with eight points from four games.
Group-favorite Belgium, which will face Israel at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on Tuesday, is currently fourth with five points from three games.
The top two in each group qualify automatically along with the best third-place finisher, while the remaining eight thirdplace teams go into a playoff for four more berths.
Gutman is set to keep faith with the players who led the team to three wins last year, with two forced changes expected compared to the lineup which beat Bosnia 3-0 in November.
After using 35 different players during Israel’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, the third most among the 53 national teams which played in the UEFA qualifying groups, Gutman has finally found his favorite lineup. Israel started with the same 11 players against Cyprus and Bosnia and the coach made only two changes for the qualifier versus Andorra.
Maccabi Haifa right-back Eyal Meshumar has played all 270 minutes of the qualifying campaign to date, but wasn’t called up for the upcoming matches after completely falling out of favor with Greens’ coach Marco Balbul, while Gili Vermouth, who also started in Israel’s first three qualifiers, is out with an ankle injury.
Ofir Martziano is set to keep his place in goal, with the back-four to include Omri Ben-Harush, Tal Ben-Haim, Eitan Tibi and Orel Dgani, who will step into Meshumar’s boots.
Red-hot Lior Refaelov will replace Vermouth in the midfield and is set to play alongside regulars Bibras Natcho, Sheran Yeini, Eran Zahavi and Tal Ben-Haim.
Striker Omer Damari, who has already scored five goals in qualifying, tied for the most with England’s Danny Welbeck, will start up front yet again.
Wales, which hasn’t reached a major tournament since qualifying for the World Cup finals in 1958, has so far beaten Andorra and Cyprus while drawing with Bosnia and Belgium.
The Wales squad includes 11 players who ply their trade in the English Premier League, including Joe Allen (Liverpool) and Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), as well as Real Madrid superstar Bale.
“Wales is a wonderful team,” said Gutman.
“We need to take them seriously. However, we have a strong and cohesive team which can compete against any rival.”