Israeli national soccer team training 370.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israel visits Azerbaijan in its first 2014 World Cup qualifier on Friday night
in a match that was once a foregone conclusion but is now seen as a real threat
to the national team’s hopes of reaching a first major tournament since
Israel has won all three of its previous meetings with Azerbaijan
by a combined goal difference of 10-0.
However, the blue-and-white is
taking nothing for granted ahead of Friday’s showdown considering its
discouraging performances in its four friendly encounters since coach Eli Gutman
took charge at the beginning the year and the steady improvement being made by
There are question marks abound regarding Gutman’s team
after it stuttered through its warm-up matches, losing three times before
drawing 1-1 with Hungary in its final tune-up game last month.
credit, Israel faced worthy opponents rather than wasting its time against
Israel’s defeats in its three previous friendly matches
came against the relatively strong Ukraine, Czech Republic and Germany, but far
more worrying than the disappointing results were the blue-and-white’s
desperately poor showings.
However, all we be forgotten should Israel
start its campaign with a win in Baku on Friday ahead of next Tuesday’s match
against Russia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
“We are entering the
match full of confidence and are aware of the task on hand,” Gutman said on
“We know what type of team we are facing and we expect the
match to unfold according to our plan.” Israel also comes up against Portugal,
Northern Ireland and Luxembourg in Group F, with only the group winner to
automatically qualify for the tournament in Brazil, while the eight-best
runners-up from the nine qualifying groups will play-off for the remaining four
Azerbaijan recorded its best ever qualifying campaign under German
coach Berti Vogts when it ended Group A of Euro 2012 qualification in fifth
place out of six teams, picking up seven points thanks to a home win over Turkey
and a draw with Belgium.
“We have all the information about Azerbaijan
and we know we are facing a serious team,” Israel captain Yossi Benayoun said.
“We can’t afford to underestimate them.”
Benayoun looks set to begin the
match on the bench, but Gutman said he will only reveal his starting lineup on
“Yossi is the most important player in the squad and although I
have been practicing a certain lineup in training you will only discover who
will start before the match,” said Gutman, who added that the team feels safe
after local authorities deployed a massive security operation to protect the
Dudu Aouate will start in goal once more, while Yuval
Spungin and Yoav Ziv are set to begin the match on the right and left sides of
the defense, respectively.
Gutman had a dilemma regarding who to start at
the heart of the defense as Tal Ben-Haim is suspended, but he seems to have
settled for the pairing of Eitan Tibi and new Vitesse Arnhem signing Dan
Gutman favorite Bibras Natcho will get the nod in the center of the
field, with Gal Alberman likely to start alongside him in what will be his first
national team appearance in almost two years following his impressive showings
for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Maor Melikson and Maccabi Haifa’s in-form
midfielder Hen Ezra are expected to attack from the flanks, with Tomer Hemed,
who has already scored three goals this season for Mallorca in La Liga, and Itay
Shechter, who has yet to make his Premier League debut for Swansea City, to
start up front.
“Of course I want to play just like any other player, but
I will be ready whenever I’m called upon,” Benayoun said.
“It is less
important to me who starts. It is far more important that we pick up all three