(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel will hope to end its Euro 2008 qualifying campaign on a winning note on Wednesday night, when it faces Macedonia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The national team will be looking to build on its 2-1 victory over Russia on Saturday, its first competitive win over a superiorly ranked opponent in more than eight years. Since the side's 5-0 win over Austria in June 1999 the blue-and-white have failed time and again to defeat top-quality opponents, a run that finally came to an end four days ago.
A victory against Macedonia could also prove crucial ahead of Sunday's draw for the 2010 World Cup qualifying groups. According to the IFA, three points will take Israel from the fourth ranking group in the draw to the third, meaning the side will only need to face two superior sides in its group rather than the three it played in Euro 2008 qualification.
Israel coach Dror Kashtan spent most of Tuesday's press conference warning against complacency ahead of the Macedonia match.
"We're constantly telling the players how important this match against Macedonia is. The most important thing at the moment is consistency and continuity," Kashtan said. "We're facing a very good team that has accumulated many points recently. Macedonia beat Croatia on Saturday, the first team to do so in this qualifying campaign."
Macedonia defeated the Croats 2-0 in Skopje thanks to two late goals by Goran Maznov and Ilco Naumoski, but lost 2-1 to Israel when the teams first met five months ago. Up until Saturday, the Macedonians had lost five of their six matches against Group E's top four sides, with their only draw coming on the road against England.
Kashtan is expected to continue with his young line-up on Wednesday, with nine of Saturday's 11 starters to be in the team once more.
"I have integrated young players into the team throughout the campaign and I plan to continue doing so," Kashtan said. "Israeli soccer has a bright future ahead of it and our aim is to qualify for a big tournament. Our goal is to reach the 2010 World Cup. We have a young and talented side and we would be wasting our time if we wouldn't set ourselves lofty goals."
Dudu Awat will captain the team for a second straight match on Wednesday and will have the same back-four in front of him.
Tal Ben-Haim and Dekel Keinan will hope to build on their impressive performances at the center of defense against Russia, with Yoav Ziv and Yuval Shpungin expected to start on the left and right of the defense, respectively. Tamir Cohen, Maor Buzaglo and Barak Itzhaki will likely start in the midfield, with Moshe Ohayon replacing the suspended Gal Alberman.
Elyaniv Barda will team-up with Roberto Colautti, who hasn't made an appearance for the blue-and-white in more than five months, but nevertheless leads the team with six goals in seven qualifiers.
"Wednesday's match is another good opportunity for our young players to gain experience ahead of the World Cup qualifiers," goalkeeper Awat said. "We're taking this match seriously and we can't afford to underestimate any opponent. Macedonia will be confident after its victory over Croatia, but we want to build on our performance on Saturday.
"We were pretty euphoric after the match against Russia, but that's only natural because we haven't beaten a big team in a while. We showed our character and seriousness on Saturday and we're definitely progressing."
On TV: Israel vs Macedonia (live at 7:00 p.m. on Channel 1)
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