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International friendlies have often been criticized as a waste of time which can put players at risk of injury for no obvious benefit. But last week's fixtures were an important last opportunity for European teams to prepare for the upcoming crucial round of Euro 2008 qualifying matches.
With about a month and a half to go until the highly anticipated Israel vs England game at National Stadium in Ramat Gan, things are looking up for the Israelis and maybe, just maybe, there's a chance that Dror Kashtan's troops can turn over the mighty England on March 24.
While England appeared less-than-interested in its game with Spain at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Israel's 1-1 draw with Ukraine was an interesting eye opener, not least because of the inclusion of Chelsea youngster Ben Sahar in the starting lineup.
England looked tired and bereft of ideas and fully deserved to get beaten by a far superior Spanish squad. The English media have come down on England coach Steve McClaren like a ton of bricks and blamed him for the failures of the team, which now looks even worse than the pathetic excuse for a World Cup contender that was all-too-easily knocked out by Portugal in Germany last summer.
Since the ever-smiling McClaren took over from the slightly-more-inspiring Sven Goran Erikkson after the World Cup, things have gone from bad to worse. The defeat in Croatia should have been enough of a wake-up call for the former Middlesbrough coach to get his act together, but he hasn't seemed to take the hint.
Playing Gary Neville at left back was a joke, considering the chance he had to try out someone like Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard once again proved that they can not play together in the middle of the park and the decision to play Peter Crouch as a lone striker was a disaster. Added to this, the fact that McClaren made no less than six substitutions, including Manchester City's Joey Barton who came on for Lampard, and it is clear that the manager still doesn't know what his best team is.
Jermaine Defoe, who seemed to score in nearly every under-21 match in which he appeared when he was still on loan at Bournemouth a few years back, looked like he was never going to score after he came on for Shaun Wright Phillips in the 69th minute. Maybe McClaren should even look to current Bournemouth and former Spurs maestro Darren Anderton, who scored a hat-trick for the Cherries against Leyton Orient over the weekend, as a better bet to grab a few goals.
Granted, it was a wonderful belter of a strike from Iniesta which beat England, but even that couldn't compare to Walid Badier's ferocious shot from well outside the area which almost burned the back of the Ukraine net on Wednesday.
It was interesting to see Pini Balili back on the Israel squad, but also such a pity that his ridiculous foul just a minute or so after he came on as a substitute gifted Ukraine a penalty and denied Israel even more of a confidence boost ahead of the England game. Besides this, Israel fans have much to feel positive about, even after the excruciating loss to Croatia last October.
Amit Ben-Shushan may not have had many chances for Betar recently, but he linked up well with the young Sahar. And Kashtan's defense looked much more sound, with Arik Benado making an international return and the inclusion of Yoav Ziv in place of Omri Afek.
There's so much hype surrounding the England game that with the crowd behind the Israel team, England in disarray and Sahar to inspire, conditions couldn't be much better for a shock Israel win.
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