Maccabi Haifa Yossi Benayoun (left).
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
The international careers of Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim looked to be over long ago. But the two veterans are set to make their returns to the Israel national team on Tuesday when the blue-and-white hosts Moldova in Netanya in its final tune-up match ahead of next week’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Albania.
The 37-year-old Benayoun, who has registered a record 97 appearances for Israel, has played for the blue-and-white only once in the past three years, in a friendly match against Croatia in March 2016.
The 35-year-old Ben-Haim, who is ranked third all-time with 91 appearances, hasn’t played for Israel since an international friendly against Honduras in June 2014.
Benayoun and Ben-Haim’s renaissance at Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season, combined with a long list of injuries, resulted in their call-up by coach Elisha Levy, who has so far been delighted with their contribution off the field.
“Yossi and Tal have shown true commitment during our training sessions and they have a great will to play for the national team,” said Levy.
“That is the reason they are here, regardless of how many minutes they end up playing. They conduct themselves the right way and add a lot to the dressing room. I always said that I’ll call up any player when I feel it is right. At the moment, Tal Ben-Haim and Yossi Benayoun are in good shape and deserve this call-up.”
Missing from the Israel squad are goalkeeper Ariel Harush and striker Tomer Hemed. After having his decisions questioned by players time and again, Levy decided to take a stand by suspending the two from this month’s matches, meaning they will not play for the team again at least until September.
Israel hosts Albania in Haifa on Sunday, aiming to take a significant step towards securing third place in 2018 World Cup qualifying Group G. Despite the 4-1 defeat in Spain in its most recent qualifier in March, Israel is still well placed to finish in third. Spain is top of the group with 13 points from five games, ahead of Italy on goal difference. Israel is third on nine points, three ahead of Albania.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, while the eight best runners-up will advance to home-and-away playoffs. A third-place finish could help Israel improve its seeding ahead of Euro 2020 qualifying.
“We have a small advantage over Albania because we beat them on the road, but I don’t think our upcoming qualifier will end up deciding who finishes in third,” said Levy.