Israel hosts Greece in ‘do-or-die’ affair

Needing a top-two finish in its group, blue-and-white in tricky spot with three qualifiers left.

israel soccer 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
israel soccer 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Thousands of words have been written and spoken, but it all really comes down to one simple four-word question – can Israel beat Greece? The national team hosts the Greeks at Bloomfield Stadium on Friday afternoon in a crucial Euro 2012 qualifier it must win if it hopes to maintain a realistic chance of advancing to next summer’s European Championships.
Confidence levels in the blue-andwhite squad are sky-high following three straight qualifying victories, but Greece is still unbeaten after six matches in Group F and Israel’s players have plenty to prove having not defeated a real rival for qualification for a major tournament since the famous 5-0 thrashing of Austria in June 1999.
“We are here to win. This is the money-time,” said Kaiserslautern striker Itay Shechter, who is set to start up front for Israel.
“Everyone thinks this will be an easy win but we are facing a strong team.
They may not be in their best shape, but they have some very good players.
Greece might not be Spain or Italy, but we mustn’t forget that they have already beaten us.”
Israel and Greece have played each other three times over the past two-anda- half years, with one match ending in a draw and the Greeks winning twice, including in Euro 2012 qualifying last October.
A wide-ranging match-fixing scandal and the financial crisis in the country has seen Greek soccer suffer, something which was evident in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 4-2 aggregate victory over Panathinaikos in the Europa League playoffs.
However, Greece hasn’t lost to a side the equivalent of Israel since 2005 and coach Fernando Santos, unbeaten in his 12 games at the helm, is confident his men can claim all three points at Bloomfield.
“This is a very important game for us but it isn’t a character test,” Greece’s Portuguese coach said. “This isn’t the decisive match in our campaign. We still have three more matches after this one. We need to record good results in all our remaining matches if we want to qualify, starting with the encounter against Israel. We have prepared well for this match and my players are ready and will be entering the game with the right attitude to take all three points.”
Left-back Nikos Spyropoulos will miss the match with a knee injury, while Sokratis Papastathopoulos is suspended, but the ever-dangerous Giorgos Samaras and the goal scorers in Greece’s 2-1 win over Israel in October, Dimitris Salpingidis and Giorgos Karagounis, are all still around to terrorize the blue-and-white.
“This is a game of do-or-die for Israel, but we can still afford to lose,” said Samaras, who plays with Israel’s Biram Kiyal at Scottish giant Celtic.
“I understood from Biram that there’s a lot of pressure in Israel. He has been telling me for the last three months that this is a match Israel must win. Israel will play aggressive and we will need to make the most of our chances.”
Greece is currently one point clear of Croatia and third-ranked Israel, but Luis Fernandez’s side has played a game more than the top two, meaning it will not only need to win on Friday, but also pick up at least one point in next Tuesday’s match at Croatia and beat Malta in its final qualifier in October.
However, it first and foremost will have to defeat Greece and Fernandez knows he will need to use an attacking formation on Friday.
Nevertheless, the Frenchman has yet to decide if he will start with two strikers up front.
Dudu Aouate will of course start in goal once more, with Tal Ben-Haim and Rami Gershon to begin the match in the center of the defense and Omri Ben- Harush likely to start at left back, with Yuval Spungin to play on the right.
Kiyal, Lior Rafaelov and Yossi Benayoun, who arrived back in Israel on Thursday morning after completing his move to Arsenal from Chelsea on Wednesday night, are set to play in the midfield, with Eran Zahavi and Almog Cohen also in contention for a starting position.
Both Zahavi and Cohen could be in the lineup should Fernandez choose to start with five midfielders, with Tomer Hemed likely to team-up with Shechter should the coach use two strikers.
“I’m very happy to join a club like Arsenal. It’s a good opportunity for me and a big challenge. I can’t wait to join my new teammates in training, but at the moment I’m fully focused on the match against Greece,” Benayoun said.
“This is a critical match and I hope we don’t disappoint again. So far we have beaten teams we had to beat and our big test will be against Greece. I believe we will win this match.”