Sinai Says: Israel’s victory vs Greece far from a given

It has been a while since Israel’s national soccer team has been this confident ahead of such a crucial match.

August 30, 2011 23:56
4 minute read.
Soccer playerss

Soccer players. (photo credit: Adi Avishai)

It has been a while since Israel’s national soccer team has been this confident ahead of such a crucial match.

The blue-and-white hosts Greece at Bloomfield Stadium on Friday in a Euro 2012 qualifier it simply must win if it has any hope of remaining in the hunt for a top-two finish in Group F, with the group winner to qualify automatically and the second- place team to go into a playoff for a place in the finals.

Some of Israel’s players have been happy to speak about how optimistic they are feeling while others appear to be wary of coming off arrogant, but let there be no doubt, Luis Fernandez’s squad is all but certain it will win on Friday.

“We want to win and we can’t picture any other scenario,” RCD Mallorca striker Tomer Hemed said on Monday. “We have an excellent squad and if we don’t advance to the European Championships it would be a failure.”

The Israeli players have plenty of reasons to be feeling positive.

First, the national team is coming off the back of three straight qualifying victories, although it is worth noting that these wins were against Latvia and Georgia, teams not expected to progress.

Second, not only is the squad largely made up of players plying their trade in Europe, something unheard of until recently, these socalled “legionnaires” are even becoming more than bit players abroad.

Itay Shechter, for example, is already a regular for Kaiserslautern in the German Bundesliga, while fellow striker Hemed has joined Dudu Aouate in Mallorca’s starting lineup and Wisla Krakow’s Maor Melikson is surprisingly becoming a star in Poland.

However, considering Israel has only qualified for a major tournament once in its history – reaching the World Cup some 41 years ago – Hemed is setting the bar quite high for the current side.

And that’s without even mentioning the fact that a win against Greece would far from guarantee the national team a place in next summer’s tournament in Poland and Ukraine.

Despite only trailing group-leader Greece by a single point, while being tied on 13 points with Croatia, Israel finds itself in an awkward position as it has played one match more than its main rivals and faces an extremely tough visit to Zagreb next Tuesday.

Even assuming it draws in Croatia and beats Malta in its final qualifier, picking up seven out of a possible nine points from its remaining matches, the national team will likely finish no higher than second, progressing to a difficult two-legged playoff against a second-place finisher from one of the other groups.

But, first things first, it has to defeat Greece. And despite the squad’s almost unprecedented self belief, that is far from a foregone conclusion.

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 this month.

But that only tells part of the story.

The fact of the matter is that Greece is the only unbeaten team in Group F and hasn’t lost to a side the equivalent of Israel since 2005.

The Greeks only suffered two defeats on their way to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, both coming at the hands of Switzerland, while losing only once to Turkey on course to Euro 2008.

Let’s not forget that Israel and Greece have also 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.

It is also easy to ignore the fact that the national team hasn’t beaten a real rival for qualification for a major event since the 20th century.

Sure, Israel defeated Russia 2-1 in Euro 2008 qualifying when it no longer had a chance to progress, but the last win in a meaningful encounter over a superior opponent was the famous 5-0 thrashing of Austria in June 1999.

That victory sparked euphoria and confidence levels were remarkably high ahead of the team’s playoff tie against Denmark for a place in Euro 2000, somewhat like they are at the moment.

But it was soon followed by one of the most painful defeats in Israel history, a 5-0 home humiliation at the hands of the Danes.

I will go out on a limb here and guarantee that Israel will not lose 5-0 to Greece on Friday.

In fact, I feel that the blue-andwhite is the slight favorite in Bloomfield.

However, the current over-confidence is both wrong and delusional.

“I think it is time that we say the truth, we are better than Greece and we should beat them,” Israel defender Tal Ben-Haim told Sport5.

“I think that if you compare the squads we are better in every position.”

Let’s hope Ben-Haim and his teammates can back up their brash talking on the field.

They’ve done nothing so far to suggest that will be the case.

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