Members of Israel's national soccer squad..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite Israel coach Eli Gutman’s insistence otherwise, the national team can take a massive step towards qualification for Euro 2016 when it hosts Bosnia at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa on Sunday night.
With two wins from two matches at Cyprus and Andorra, and with Bosnia having just two points from its first three qualifiers, a blue-and-white victory on Sunday would see Israel move seven points clear of one of its main rivals for qualification in Group B.
The Bosnians, who made a group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup finals in June after reaching their first major tournament as an independent nation, drew against Wales and Belgium after suffering a shock home defeat by Cyprus.
Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, which will involve 24 nations for the first time, not only will the top two and the best third-placed team from the nine qualifying groups advance automatically to the finals, but the remaining sides to finish in third place will progress to the playoffs.
Israel looks to be entering the match in an ideal situation, with Gutman having a full squad at his disposal and many of his star players in excellent form. On the other hand, Bosnia will be without several key players on Sunday, including star strikers Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic.
However, the blue-and-white hasn’t beaten a real rival for qualification since the 20th century. Its last win in a meaningful encounter against a strong opponent was the famous 5-0 thrashing of Austria in June 1999.
“Bosnia has a good team, but we believe in ourselves,” said Gutman.
“We shouldn’t be fooling people that we are the favorites. They have still got plenty of good players and we need to make sure we don’t accidentally underestimate Bosnia. We are focused on Sunday’s match and are not thinking any further ahead. Regardless of the result, neither Bosnia nor Israel will qualify or be knocked out on Sunday.”
Gutman looks set to use the exact lineup which started in the 2-1 win over Cyprus.
Initial indications were that Gutman planned to start with Lior Refaelov in place of Gili Vermut.
However, the latter now seems likely to maintain his place in the starting 11.
Ashdod SC stopper Ofir Martziano will stand in goal, with Tal Ben-Haim and Eitan Tibi to continue their budding partnership in the center of the defense.
Omri Ben-Harush will play at left-back, with Eyal Meshumar to once more start on the right side of the back-four. Yeini will play as the holding midfielder, with Bibras Natcho to be positioned just in front of him. Eran Zahavi, winger Tal Ben-Haim and Vermut are expected to be in charge of pushing the team forward, with lone striker Omer Damari to yet again be the main man responsible for finishing off Israel’s attacks.
“We are facing a tough mission and the moment of truth is almost here,” said Damari, who has scored in each of Israel’s past three matches. “We are obviously very excited, but we are ready for the match. We will do everything to win.”