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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Ever since the January 2006 draw for the Euro 2008 qualifying round matches, Israeli soccer fans have been drooling over the prospect of seeing the national team face one of the world's most celebrated sides. After 14 months of anticipation, Israel hosts England Saturday night in one of the biggest matches National Stadium in Ramat Gan has ever seen.
Months of anticipation will finally end when the two sides, which are tied on seven points from their first four qualifiers and are both desperately seeking a victory, face off.
Anything short of an Israel victory and Dror Kashtan will be just another name on the long list of coaches who failed to lead Israel to a major championship. The qualifying campaign hasn't even reached the halfway mark, but after losing 4-3 to Croatia at home in its last qualifying round match, any further loss of points at Ramat Gan would doom Israel to seven more months of meaningless qualifiers.
Nevertheless, England coach Steve McClaren would happily swap his troubles with Kashtan's. The three lions have drawn and lost their last two qualifiers to Macedonia and Croatia, respectively, and the pressure on McClaren has increased to a level only possible in England.
The English Football Association has assured its coach that he will continue regardless of Saturday's result, but McClaren's days as England boss will be numbered if his players fail to collect all three points.
Israel, which has gone 37 years without reaching a major championship, is the clear underdog on Saturday, but Kashtan feels his side will be up for the challenge. "You don't have to be an expert to know that England is the better side on paper," Kashtan said.
"There is a huge difference between Israel and England, and obviously they are much stronger than us. It's extremely important that our players play to their potential.
"It's very difficult to succeed against the English side, but if we execute our game plan and everything goes our way, we definitely have a chance."
Kashtan has almost finalized his lineup and said on Thursday that he remained undecided about only three of his 11 starters. Dudu Awat will start in goal, with Tal Ben-Haim, Shimon Gershon, Yoav Ziv and Yuval Shpungin all virtually guaranteed a place in Israel's defense.
Walid Badier and Arik Benado will likely both play as defensive midfielders, with Yossi Benayoun captaining the side from the midfield once again.
The remaining three positions in midfield and attack are still up for grabs and Kashtan will be mulling over the decision until he announces the starting lineup on Saturday afternoon.
England, which has met Israel in friendlies twice, winning 2-1 in 1986 and drawing 0-0 two years later, will start with Paul Robinson in goal and will have the superb duo of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand in the center of the defense.
Phil Neville and Jamie Carragher are expected to play in right and left back, respectively, with Wayne Rooney and Andy Johnson due to team up for the side up front. The menacing English midfield will almost definitely feature Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon and the fit-again Owen Hargreaves.
Hargreaves, who missed England's last two qualifying round matches due to injury, was certain his side's supremacy over Israel will ensure the team leaves Ramat Gan with all three points.
"We're a better team than Israel, technically and tactically," the Bayern Munich star told the Daily Telegraph. "We have to go out and control the game, dominate it and let Israel know anything other than three points for us is simply not enough. In the end, it will come down to who wants it more and if we do, then we will win the game.
"We have to put them on the back foot from the start and if we can do that, they will make mistakes because they're not used to playing at a high tempo. We must keep the pressure on them, win the ball back and get it to our players up front.
"We're used to playing at that high tempo and it's something we have to do because they're not used to it. We know they are a good team and things are different when you are playing away from home.
"Hopefully, we can come away with a clean sheet and three points like in Macedonia. The atmosphere will be difficult but it's nothing we're not used to."
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