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(photo credit: AP)
Dror Kashtan's Israel team was dealt a reality check ahead of next month's crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against England when the side was beaten 2-1 by Belarus in a friendly game on Wednesday night.
The squad showed up for the game in sub-optimal condition and failed to impress, falling prey to a stoppage time penalty by the hosts in Minsk.
Belarus went 1-0 up in the third minute and kept its lead until the half hour mark when Shimon Gershon scored a penalty for Israel. The home side won the penalty in the 94th minute which Maksim Romashchenko slotted past substitute goalkeeper Nir Davidovitch to take the win for Belarus.
Around 10,000 passionate fans made their presence felt at the Dinamo Stadium, creating a hostile and unfriendly atmosphere for the Israelis. The game was Israeli's last run-out before the September 8 England match to be played at the new Wembley Stadium.
Israel is currently joint top of Group E, tied on 17 points with Croatia, while Belarus is currently in fifth position in its Euro 2008 qualifying group, winning two, drawing one and losing four of its matches to date.
The Israelis had a difficult trip to Minsk, which included numerous baggage handling mishaps and charter flight delays. As a result of the transportation problems, Kashtan had to call off the team's Tuesday training session. Many players complained about the progressive fatigue, but pledged their commitment to the team.
Kashtan decided to include no less than five Betar Jerusalem players in his starting line up, alongside his star players from overseas. Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool), Tal Ben Haim (Chelsea) and Roberto Colautti (Borussia Monchengladbach) were also included in the starting line up.
The Belarusians, who entered the game as clear underdogs, stunned the visitors in the third minute of the encounter after a well-crafted counter attack. Roman Vasiluk, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv in the 2004/05 season, netted the ball from close range to give his side the surprise lead.
Kashtan's gameplan started paying dividends, as Barak Itzhaki started working his magic in attack. The Betar Jerusalem forward was fouled in the box and Israel was awarded a penalty in the 28th minute.
Itzhaki's Betar teammate Shimon Gershon stepped up and converted the spot-kick to level the score.
The game was played at a slower place in the second half, with both coaches deciding to rest their key players. The teams started concentrating on their defensive duties and settled for the occasional counter attack. Israel playmaker Benayoun was lacking match fitness and failed to get his teammates involved in attack.
Arsenal's Aleksandr Hleb almost scored the winner for the hosts in the 76th minute, but his shot missed the target by a couple of meters.
Toto Tamuz and Salim Toema came on as substitutes in the latter stages of the game for Israel, but failed to make their mark on the game. Belarus had yet to say the last word.
Just when it looked like the game was heading towards a draw, the hosts pushed ahead for one last attack. The referee awarded Belarus a controversial penalty, after spotting a foul in the box. Romashchenko stepped up and sent the local supporters into raptures with a perfectly taken penalty kick.
Meanwhile Estonia defeated Andorra in the one game from Group E played on Wednesday night.
Indrek Zelinski scored a goal in injury time to give Estonia the win.
Zelinski took off his shirt to celebrate and was dismissed after receiving his second yellow card of the match.
Estonia now has three points in the Group, while Andorra is last with no points.