jeremy last 88.
(photo credit: )
Religious soccer fans in Israel got an extra benefit this past Shabbat.
Not only did the more devout Jews in the Holy Land have the opportunity for extra spiritual uplifting with the start of the Succot holiday, the fact that Shabbat did not end till 5:54 p.m. meant that they couldn't watch the first half of Israel's 1-1 draw with Russia in their Euro 2008 qualifier in Moscow on Saturday night.
The rest of the country was not as lucky and had to put up with what was an embarrassingly poor display in the first 45 minutes before seeing a dramatic turnaround in fortunes after halftime.
It was sometimes unfathomable how such an apparently talented group of players managed to play so badly in the first half. The defense was most at fault, with former Hapoel Tel Aviv star Shimon Gershon putting in another shoddy performance. Watching Gershon huff and puff as he attempted to chase down the Russian goalscorer, Andrey Arshavin, in the fifth minute and not even make a tackle was simply excruciating.
As he has all season for his new club, Betar Jerusalem, as well as for Israel, Gershon looked weak and slow and was rightly replaced by his younger and more vibrant Betar teammate Tomer Ben-Yosef at halftime.
Gershon's partner in the center of defense, the normally solid Tal Ben-Haim, also looked ineffective in the first period. The Israelis were very lucky not to concede more than one goal before halftime, with goalie Dudu Awat often the one to thank. The team just didn't gel and had little answer to the organization and pace of the Russians.
The Israeli players couldn't string more than a few passes together and kept on giving the ball away in midfield, with the veteran Walid Badir as well as Omri Afek more often than not guilty of wasting possession and handing it right back to the opposition.
And poor Yossi Benayoun, the usually inspirational captain, was clearly a yard off the pace. Much of the pre-match build up had focused on whether Yossi would play but he should have sat this one out because the West Ham playmaker hardly touched the ball and when he did, he didn't do much with it.
The question at halftime was whether this was the day Dror Kashtan would come undone. Touted as one of the best-ever Israeli soccer coaches, a lot has been expected of Kashtan, who took over from Avraham Grant over the summer.
His team talk and substitutions appeared to work and produced instant results. Other, weaker, coaches would have been reticent to replace Gershon, but Kashtan brought Ben-Yosef on in his place. And the decision to bring in the eventual goalscorer and Betar wunderkind, Amit Ben-Shushan, in place of Klemi Saban, added an extra dimension to Israel's play.
Ben-Shushan has clearly emerged as one of the best prospects in Israel in some time and constantly rattled the Russian defenders, turning them inside out. And the Nigerian-born Israeli Toto Tamuz showed that his time has also come.
The dinking run and shot which rebounded into Ben-Shushan's path indicated that perhaps it's time for out with the old and in with the new.
Kashtan should be praised for his management of the team and this was an extremely valuable point earned with the draw. Now the youngsters have to follow it up with a strong performance against Croatia in Ramat Gan in November.
A win there and the fans can start hoping that maybe this is the campaign that will see Israel qualify for an international tournament for the first time since 1970.
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