Israel's national soccer team finished its World Cup qualifying campaign undefeated and kept its hopes alive of reaching a playoff for a spot in next year's finals despite a lackluster effort in a 2-1 victory over the Faroe Islands at National Stadium in Ramat Gan Saturday night.
The match was over almost before it began as Yossi Benayoun's goal 45 seconds into the game put the match beyond a weak Faroe team that despite giving it its best effort, made it clear why it has only managed to score four goals in the whole campaign.
Israel could have come closer to winning by the seven goals it needed to improve its chances of qualification but wasteful finishing meant that the team couldn't manage to win by more than a single goal and that it now hopes other results in the group go its way so it can qualify for the playoff.
Israel got off to a perfect start when Benayoun sneaked up on Faroese 'keeper Jakub Mikkelsen, stole the ball from him and smashed it into the net.
The blue-and-whites seemed content with their first minute goal and invited the Faroese to search for an equalizer. Israel may have regretted its defensive stance, but poor finishing by Faroese striker Rogvi Jacobsen saved the blue-and-white.
Jacobsen should have scored 26 minutes into the match but a last-ditch tackle by the Israeli defense blocked the ball. Four minutes later Jacobsen faced Israel goalie Nir Davidovitch once again, but his shot was parried by the Haifa keeper.
The missed chances by the Faroese seemed to wake up the Israeli squad and the team began to push forward looking for a two-goal cushion. Omer Golan came close to scoring on several occasions, the best of his chances coming a minute before halftime when he missed a free header from five meters out.
The second half was much like the first with Israel searching for a second goal and the Faroese trying to score on a break. Israel continued firing blanks in front of the goal and couldn't manage to score a second. Walid Badier had the best chance to double the score but his header went straight to the Faroese keeper who held on.
One minute into injury time, Israel finally managed to score a second. A left foot shot by substitute Michael Zandberg beat the Faroese goalie and settled the match.
The Faroese did, however, get a reward for their efforts when Simun Samuelsen scored a consolation goal for his team two minutes into injury time.
Full time came and Israel won the match, but once again the team lacked the attacking flair expected from its loyal fans and left the crowd in Ramat Gan disappointed with another poor display.
Saturday night wrapped up Israel's 10-match qualifying run and temporarily puts it in first place in European Group Four with 18 points but with little to no chance of qualifying for Germany 2006. Only if Cyprus shocks France on Wednesday night in Paris will Israel reach a playoff and have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since the 1970 finals in Mexico.
The campaign included home and away draws against France, Switzerland and Ireland as well as home and away wins against Cyprus and the Faroe Islands.
Qualify or not, even coach Grant's harshest critics would have to acknowledge Israel's achievement in finishing the campaign without a single loss. Even though the team may have lacked imagination at times, highlights such as the draws in Paris and Dublin are impressive accomplishments.
Despite going 10 unbeaten matches, Grant is still uncertain about his immediate future as the national coach. The Israel Football Association secretariat is set to meet on October 17 to decide if Grant should continue.
It has been rumored that Betar Jerusalem would be interested in Grant's services should the IFA release him, but it is widely believed that the secretariat will approve a third term for Grant and that he will once again be leading the team as it tries to qualify for the 2008 European championships.
Sharon Solomon contributed to this report.
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