Israel heads to Croatia with heads down

Only a victory in Zagreb against the strongest team in Group F will leave Israel with any hope of still finishing among the top two.

Benayoun 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benayoun 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel enters Tuesday’s Euro 2012 qualifier at Croatia dejected and disillusioned after seeing its dream of reaching the European Championships all but end with a spiritless performance against Greece on Friday.
The 1-0 loss to the Greeks at Bloomfield Stadium not only essentially ended the national team’s hopes of making Euro 2012, but also exposed the rifts between coach Luis Fernandez and his players, the coach and the media and between the players themselves.
Captain Yossi Benayoun and defensive anchor Tal Ben-Haim spent much of the flight to Zagreb trying to settle their differences with the help of assistant coach Tal Banin, but the two have never been the best of friends and that is not set to change any time soon.
Fernandez, who looks all but certain to leave after the qualifying campaign ends at Malta on October 11, gathered media representatives at Sunday’s training session in the hope of quelling the criticism directed at him since the loss to Greece.
“I’m disappointed with the result against Greece because I don’t think that the better team won,” the Frenchman said. “It’s true that our chances of advancing aren’t great at the moment, but there’s still a mathematical chance.”
Only a victory in Zagreb against the strongest team in Group F will leave Israel with any hope of still finishing among the top two, although even with a win against the Croats, it will still need other results to go its way.
Israel is currently third in the group, four points behind leader Greece and three points from Croatia, with the top two each playing one match fewer than the blue-and-white.
“I heard what [Eyal] Berkovic, [Haim] Revivo and [Itzik] Zohar said. Anyone can shout in a microphone every day, I also shout on my radio show, but I respect players and coaches,” said Fernandez, angered by the criticism directed at him and his players. “I’ve been in soccer for 30 years and I’ve succeeded in France and Italy. I’ve learned that criticism comes with the job.”
Fernandez also addressed the squabble between Benayoun and Ben-Haim.
“As long as I’m here I unite the squad,” he said. “The only problem with Yossi is that he is coming back from a long injury. When I want to speak to Yossi or Tal I always talk to them together with Dudu Aouate because for me they are the most important players.”
Fernandez may drop Benayoun from the starting lineup on Tuesday in one of several changes he is expected to make from the team that started against Greece.
Almog Cohen and Bibras Natcho, who came on as a substitute against Greece, are both suspended, with Fernandez also considering dropping Lior Rafaelov and Itay Shechter, while giving Maccabi Haifa defenders Itzik Cohen and Taleb Tawatha their chance.
Israel has lost all three of its previous qualifiers against Croatia, including a 2-1 defeat in Ramat Gan in Euro 2012 qualifying last October.
With a match in Greece still to come, Croatia will be desperate to take all three points on Tuesday ahead of the showdown in Athens for first place and automatic qualification for next summer’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
“The match against Israel is an excellent opportunity for us,” Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said.
“If we win we will move closer to our goal of reaching Euro 2012.
It is true that we have beaten Israel in three of three meetings, but we mustn’t forget that in soccer anything can happen.”
Despite the blue-and-white’s fractious state, Bilic refuses to take anything for granted.
“I told my players that it would be stupid to think that Israel’s situation is good for us,” he said. “Israel was unlucky on Friday because it didn’t deserve to lose. Israel’s players will be highly motivated against us, but if we beat them I believe we will also win in Greece.”