national soccer team 248.88.
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Any lingering chance Israel has of advancing to a first World Cup in 40 years will end on Saturday night if the team fails to defeat Latvia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The national team has already dropped two vital qualification points against Latvia, drawing 1-1 in Riga last year, with Vladimirs Kolesnicenko's last-minute goal canceling out Yossi Benayoun's opener.
Israel, which only managed to collect a single point from its last two qualifiers against Greece five months ago, is currently in fourth position in Group 2 with nine points from six games, trailing both Greece and Switzerland by four points and Latvia by one point.
Dror Kashtan's men, which host Luxembourg next Wednesday, face Moldova in their penultimate qualifier on October 10 and will cap their campaign away at Switzerland four days later.
Even victories in each of its final four qualifiers may not be enough for Israel to advance should Switzerland defeat Greece on Saturday and the top two teams in the group win their remaining matches as expected.
If the Greeks don't lose in Basel, the national team will have its fate back in its own hands once more, but will probably still need to win its final qualifier against the Swiss to finish in the runners-up position in the group and progress to the playoffs.
"We are facing two very important matches and we will settle for nothing less than two victories," coach Kashtan said on Thursday.
"The result between Switzerland and Greece will have a big impact on our campaign, but we must first make sure we take care of our own business."
Israel's disappointing campaign to date has resulted in widespread apathy among local fans and the Israel Football Association has been handing out tickets to charitable organizations for Saturday's match in the hope that Ramat Gan will be at least half full.
"I think that it all comes down to a lack of sporting culture in Israel," said Kashtan, trying to explain why so few supporters want to attend the match.
"There is no shame in being patriotic. There is pride in loving the national team."
Bolton midfielder Tamir Cohen was called up to the team on Thursday after Hapoel Tel Aviv's Avihai Yadin continued to struggle with injury.
Cohen isn't expected to start on Saturday, with Maccabi Haifa midfielder Biram Kiyal likely to take Yadin's place in the lineup.
Dudu Aoute will start in goal as usual, with Avi Strul to team up with Dekel Keinan in the center of defense in the absence of the suspended Tal Ben-Haim. Dedi Ben-Dayan will be the side's left-back, with Yuval Spungin the favorite to start on the right of defense.
Gal Alberman will play with Kiyal in the center of the field, with Benayoun and Yaniv Katan, who was recalled to the team for the first time in nearly two years, to attack from the flanks. Elyaniv Barda is set to continue up front, with Kashtan still undecided on whether to play Omer Golan or Ben Sahar beside him.
"There are many different opinions on who should play, but someone must take the responsibility and that is me," Kashtan said. "I'm certain I have selected the best players for the upcoming matches and I'm very pleased with my team."