Israel trains cool 224.8.
(photo credit: AP)
The Israeli players joked with each other and looked totally relaxed as they juggled the ball at Watford FC's London Colney training ground on Thursday during the national team's penultimate training session ahead of Saturday afternoon's crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against England.
Less than 48 hours before the big match at Wembley Stadium, Dror Kashtan's starting 11 is close to being decided on and, despite the calm attitude, the players are focused on the job in hand.
A win in England would give Israel a massive boost in its effort to qualify for a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup finals. But with Israel having played one game more than each of its opponents, a loss to Steve McClaren's side this weekend would make qualification very difficult indeed. England is playing four of its five remaining games at home while Israel still has to travel to Croatia, the team that won in Ramat Gan last November.
Defender Yoav Ziv, who is expected to start for Israel at left back, said Israel has a good chance.
"We can win but it won't be easy," he told The Jerusalem Post before beginning training Thursday afternoon. "England is a very strong team even if some of their players are out injured. We know Michael Owen is a very good player and also [Micah] Richards."
Ziv said it will be exciting for the players to play at Wembley Stadium, one of the most famous and legendary grounds in world soccer, but added, "We will only think about that before the game, not on the pitch."
When the 23-man squad was split in two for a practice game on Thursday, Ziv was part of the team in blue that is likely to start the match. Roberto Colautti participated in the stretching at the start of the training but not the practice game. He is still not likely to start the game due to a thigh injury, although there is still a chance he may recover in time.
It is expected that with Colautti out injured, Yaniv Katan and Barak Itzhaki will play as Israel's two strikers in a defensive formation that will see Betar Jerusalem's central defender Arik Benado pushed up to midfield alongside Walid Badier as in previous matches. Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun will likely play on the right with Idan Tal on the opposite flank.
Alongside Ziv in defense will be his Betar Jerusalem teammate, Shimon Gershon, and Cheslea's Tal Ben-Haim, with Maccabi Tel Aviv youngster Yuval Shpungin at right back and Dudu Awat in goal.
Benayoun said it will be more difficult for Israel without Colautti, an Argentinean who took Israeli citizenship after marrying an Israel and has scored six goals in eight internationals since making his Israel debut in September 2007.
"I think he is an important player," he said. "We have seen how many goals he has already scored in only a few games and we all hope he will be able to play. But as I have already said, we do not rely on any single players, not on me, not on Colautti, not on anyone. I hope he plays, but if he doesn't, whoever plays in his place will not be any less worthy."
Benayoun said he would be happy with a draw, which would mirror the 0-0 result in the corresponding fixture in Ramat Gan in March.
BBC soccer commentator John Motson was among the journalists who watched Israel train on Thursday and said he was expecting a tough game with few goals.
"England should be good enough with the home advantage, but it is very important for them to score an early goal," Motson said. "I think the Israeli players will rise to the occasion and Kashtan's team will put men behind the ball making it very difficult for England to score. If it is 0-0 after the first 20 minutes, the pressure on England will begin to build."
Former Liverpool star Ronnie Rosenthal was at the Israeli training session on Wednesday. "I hope we will be able to stop them scoring, and the important thing is that if we get a chance, to take it," he said.
Israel will hold its final training session before the game on Friday afternoon at Wembley Stadium.
On TV: England vs Israel (live on Channel 1 at 7 p.m.)