Israeli national soccer team meets during practice.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The Israel national team squad only reassembled for training on Tuesday, but coach Eli Gutman had made his decision regarding the starting lineup for the Euro 2016 qualifier against Wales long before that.
After opening a campaign with three consecutive wins for the first time since joining UEFA 23 years ago, the blue-andwhite is brimming with confidence ahead of Saturday’s tie against Wales at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa and next Tuesday’s match versus Belgium at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
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.
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 Herzegovina and the coach only made two changes for the qualifier versus Andorra.
As things currently stand, Gutman intends to make only two changes once more to the lineup for the clash with Wales, both for reasons out of his control.
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, last playing for the team more than two months ago.
Gutman favorite Gili Vermouth also started in Israel’s first three qualifiers, but was ruled out of the showdowns with Wales and Belgium with an ankle injury.
Gutman only made four changes overall to the 25-man squad he called up for the qualifier against Bosnia. The two additional changes besides Meshumar and Vermouth aren’t expected to have any impact on the lineup, with Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s Oded Elkayam and Hapoel Beersheba’s Ofir Davidzada being replaced by Maccabi Haifa’s Taleb Tawatha and Brighton’s Beram Kayal.
Barring injury, the red-hot Lior Refaelov is set to replace Vermouth and finally start for the blue-and-white. The 28-year-old continued his superb form for Club Brugge on Sunday, scoring a sensational stoppage- time winner in the Belgian cup final.
Maccabi Haifa defender Orel Dgani is the favorite to fill Meshumar’s boots, with the rest of the team likely to be unchanged.
Despite conceding 10 goals over his past three matches with the struggling Ashdod SC, Ofir Martziano will again start in goal.
There was some concern regarding Charlton Athletic defender Tal Ben-Haim’s fitness, but he is set to recover from his back injury in time and start alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eitan Tibi in the center of the back-line.
Omri Ben-Harush is expected to continue at left-back, with Dgani likely to replace Meshumar.
CSKA Moscow’s Bibras Natcho, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eran Zahavi, Sheran Yeini and Tal Ben-Haim, together with Refaelov will man the midfield.
Yeini is set to be given the role of keeping a close eye on Wales superstar Gareth Bale the way he did on Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014 World Cup qualification.
Omer Damari, who has already scored five goals in qualifying, tied for the most with England’s Danny Welbeck, has still not found the back of the net in six league matches with new club side RB Leipzig, but will play as Israel’s lone striker yet again.
One possible change Gutman is considering is using Celtic’s Nir Biton instead of winger Ben-Haim, with the former likely to replace Yeini against Belgium regardless, in an attempt to freshen up the side.
“The fact that I’m in the Israel squad is a huge honor for me and if the coach decides to use me that will be great,” Biton said on Wednesday.
“We naturally tend to underestimate opponents, but unlike Wales we don’t have that many players in the English Premier League or a player at Real Madrid,” Biton added. “We are not the favorites, but we are not inferior to them either.”