benayoun soccer 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Israel faces its first major hurdle in the Euro 2008 qualification race this weekend, as it takes on Gus Hiddink's Russia in chilly Moscow.
After registering easy wins against lowly Estonia and Andorra in the opening two games of the campaign, the showdown against the Russians will be the first real test for Dror Kashtan's team, which will need at least a draw to stand a real chance to qualify from Group E.
"Russia is a very strong team," an optimistic Kashtan told reporters ahead of the game. "They didn't take part in the last World Cup, but they have always been a part of Europe's elite. A lot of money has been injected into Russian soccer and that has attracted many foreigners to play in the Russian league."
The Israeli team has not traveled to Russia in optimal condition, as regular starters Yaniv Katan and Michael Zandberg are injured and have rendered Kashtan's attacking midfield options limited.
To make matters worse, team captain Yossi Benayoun is not completely match fit and his participation will be decided close to kick-off.
The West Ham playmaker was unable to take part in the team's training drills on Thursday and the medical staff is trying to find a solution to his problem.
"I am not able to run at full pace," Benayoun explained. "I'll do anything to play this game, but I can't promise anything before resuming training. Even if I don't play there are many capable players in the squad that can replace me."
The top candidates to replace Benayoun in the starting eleven, in case the Dimona prodigy doesn't recover in time, are Betar Jerusalem youngsters Toto Tamuz and Amit Ben Shushan.
Kashtan has also decided to shuffle up his rear guard for the important game.
The main change will be in the left back position, where Yigal Antebi has been demoted in favor of long-time regular Adoram Keisi. The Maccabi Haifa veteran returned from injury last month and his good form has paved his way back into the coach's starting eleven.
Benayoun's injury will probably push Omri Afek into the midfield, making fellow Betar teammate Yoav Ziv and Steaua Bucharest defender Klemi Saban top choices for the right back spot.
Veteran anchor Alon Harazi may also be inserted into the opening lineup if needed.
Bolton defender Tal Ben-Haim was injured in the 2-0 win over Liverpool at the weekend but is hoping to participate.
He said: "I am feeling better by the day and I think I will be able to take part in the game. This is one of the biggest challenges our team has had, making it very important to win at least a point."
Defensive partner Shimon Gershon added: "I'll be celebrating my 29th birthday in Russia. I think a win in there is a realistic goal, though it won't be an easy game. We'll have to deal with the cold weather, but these types of conditions are not new to us."
Russia has become a force to be reckoned with since Gus Hiddink was appointed the team's head coach over the summer, a move that came as a surprise considering that he also had an offer from the English FA.
The Dutchman has an impressive track record in international competition and is clear favorite to outfox the Israelis, after he led South Korea to the 2002 World Cup semifinals and helped Australia reach the second round in the last World Cup in Germany.
Hiddink's main tactical asset is midfielder Marat Izmailov, who plays for local side Lokomotiv Moscow.
The 24-year-old playmaker was targeted by European giants AC Milan and Valencia in thge summer, but opted to stay home after signing a hefty contract with Lokomotiv.
Israel's last encounter with Russia was in 2003, when Avram Grant's side won 2-1 in an friendly thanks to goals from Avi Nimni and Pini Balili.
Three years have gone by and Israeli fans will be hopeful that the national team can repeat the feat.
Ramat Gan not chosen
The Israel Football Association has failed in its bid for the national stadium in Ramat Gan to host the UEFA Cup final in 2008.
The City of Manchester stadium, home to English Premiership side Manchester City, will host the event while Turkish side Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium has been picked for the same final the following season.