Perhaps the strangest part about Israel’s remarkable 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday night was that it felt natural.
It was almost as if the blue-and-white national team beats quality rivals in significant matches on a regular basis.
That could of course hardly be any further from the truth.
It had been 15 years since the blueand- white had triumphed in similar circumstances, with Israel coming up short time and again with qualification for a major tournament on the line since progressing to the 1970 World Cup.
Yet somehow, it just seemed normal that Israel outplayed the No. 1 seed in its Euro 2016 qualifying group. The blueand- white was the better team throughout, riding its luck at certain stages but ultimately dominating the proceedings.
Once Gili Vermut gave coach Eli Gutman’s men the lead in the 36th minute, there was little doubt the national team would go on to take all three points.
Omer Damari’s fifth goal of the campaign, tied for the most in UEFA qualifying with England’s Danny Welbeck, ensured Israel was cruising at halftime and Eran Zahavi put the icing on the cake in the 70th minute after Bosnia’s Toni Sunjic was sent off three minutes into the second half.
The last time Israel beat a quality rival for qualification in a meaningful encounter was in 1999 when it thrashed Austria 5-0. That was also the last, and only time, the national team finished a UEFA qualifying group in second place and advanced to a playoff, ultimately losing 8-0 on aggregate to Denmark.
In seven qualifying campaigns since, Israel has finished in third place five times and twice in fourth. In 28 matches against the top two seeds in its groups since the turn of the century until this Sunday, Israel registered 13 draws and 15 defeats. The blue-andwhite failed to claim even a single victory in its showdowns with Spain, Austria, France (twice), Slovenia, Switzerland (twice), England, Croatia (twice), Greece (twice), Russia and Portugal.
With Bosnia coming off its first appearance in the World Cup, winning eight of 10 qualifiers to reach Brazil, and the strong Belgium being drawn into Group B as a No. 2 seed, it seemed likely Israel would go on to battle Wales and Cyprus for third place.
Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, which will involve 24 nations for the first time, even third will be sufficient to reach the playoffs this time around. The top two and the best third-placed team from the nine qualifying groups advance automatically to the finals in France, with the remaining eight third-placed sides to playoff for four berths.
However, after opening a campaign with three consecutive victories for the first time since joining UEFA 22 years ago to top the group, Israel has every reason to believe it can finish among the top two and qualify automatically for Euro 2016.
It wasn’t just the fact that Israel picked up all three points once more on Sunday, it was the manner of the triumph which made it truly memorable and significant.
Israel registered an impressive nine attempts on target and completed 456 of 495 passes (92 percent) compared to Bosnia’s 251 of 286 (88%). Such stats have only been available since 1997, but in the 17 years since, the national team (or any Israeli club side for that matter) has never passed the ball so accurately throughout an entire match in international competition.
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 exact same 11 players against Cyprus and Bosnia and the coach only made two changes for the qualifier versus Andorra.
“When you coach a club side every day it is easy,” explained Gutman.
“You have plenty of time to work and mold the team while here you have only a few days. Nevertheless, in a relativity short period of time we have managed to create tactical patterns and using almost the exactly same lineup since the summer has meant the players have grown to understand each other.”
It is true that Bosnia entered the match under pressure after picking up just two points from its first three qualifiers. The Bosnians were also without several key players, including the likes of star strikers Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic.
However, the heightened importance of the encounter for Bosnia could well have resulted in a more focused and determined opponent rather than the mentally fragile side revealed in Haifa.
And despite the absentees, seven of the 11 players that started at Ofer Stadium were also in the lineup for Bosnia’s World Cup opener against eventual finalist Argentina, which ended in a tight 2-1 defeat.
Israel has now got a seven-point lead over Bosnia, 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 its remaining games, including against Belgium on the road and Israel at home, to finish ahead of 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, while Belgium remains the clear front-running favorite.
Led by Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, Wales is currently second to Israel with eight points from four games.
Israel hosts Wales in its next qualifier on March 28 at Ofer Stadium before welcoming Belgium to Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem three days later. The blueand- white really couldn’t be better placed entering those crunch showdowns which will complete the first half of the team’s campaign.
Israel then travels to Bosnia in June before hosting Andorra on September 3, three days before it visits Wales. The national team welcomes Cyprus on October 10 and will be hoping to have already wrapped up its qualification by the time it goes to Belgium for its final qualifier three days later.
Clearly there is still a very long way to go.
However, one can’t ignore that Israel played to potential at the moment of truth on Sunday and overcame a superior squad on paper. And oddly enough, it felt right.
Nothing has been decided and it is for Gutman’s men to prove that the triumph over Bosnia was the start of a trend rather than an anomaly.
Nevertheless, there was certainly a different vibe at Ofer Stadium.
Perhaps it was that of a dawn of a new era, one which will turn decades of disappointment for the Israel national team into distant memories.