Israel soccer 224.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel's match against Russia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Saturday night is nothing short of meaningless to the team's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. It is, however, exceedingly important on a much larger scale, with England's and Russia's hopes of qualification depending on the outcome of the encounter.
A victory for Russia will all but guarantee the team's place in the European championships, as the three points will leave the side with the simple task of defeating Andorra in its final qualifier on Wednesday to officially clinch its place in Austria and Switzerland.
But if Israel wins, England's fate will be back in its own hands and the Three Lions will be able to qualify for the championships with a victory against Croatia on Wednesday.
Israel's own hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 are long gone. The team's 1-0 loss to Croatia in October ended its chances and has left the team with only pride to play for in its final two qualifiers.
"We are a proud nation," Israel coach Dror Kashtan said Thursday. "We will play a major role in determining who qualifies for the championships. We've read all the different speculation, which is completely irrelevant. I'm sure the players understand that they must give their very best throughout the 90 minutes and win the match. Our only interest is the Israel national team and a win will give us ranking points."
Shimon Gershon and Danny Bonder were released from the squad on Thursday, meaning Dekel Keinan will likely partner with Chelsea's Tal Ben-Haim in the center of defense.
"There's no incentive that could make us want to win more than we already do." Keinan said.
Dudu Awat will start in goal once more for Israel, with Yoav Ziv and Yuval Shpungin set to play on the left and right flanks of defense.
Gal Alberman and Tamir Cohen are expected to anchor the midfield and Ben Sahar will start in the blue-and-white attack. Elyaniv Barda and Barak Itzhaki are likely to play supporting roles in the midfield, with Aviram Bruchian and Maor Buzaglo fighting it out for the final starting position.
Israel captain Yossi Benayoun will miss the match through injury after tearing a groin muscle in Liverpool's match on Saturday.
Russia beat England 2-1 on October 17, coming from behind with two late goals when the English looked set to capture a qualifying spot with a victory.
If Russia beats Israel it will be a point ahead of England going into the final round of games, and team manager Guus Hiddink is confident his side will get the job done on Saturday.
"I'm calm," the Dutchman said. "A victory over Israel would practically secure our qualification. After all our hard work, a defeat in Israel is simply impossible."
Russia will arrive in Israel on Friday after spending the last few days training in Cyprus.
"We've seen Israel play a lot of matches," Hiddink said. "I wouldn't say their team has a pronounced leader, but they are a very strong opponent that can upset the mood of any side. But our team is moving forward and is not prepared to be stopped halfway. We have made considerable progress, which is reflected in the FIFA rankings. However, we still have a lot of work to do."
Much has been made in recent weeks of the fact that Russian and English billionaires have supposedly offered incentives to Israel's players ahead of Saturday's match.
The players have repeatedly said they will not be affected by what has been written, adding that they'll have to prove it during the game.
The English press has obsessed itself with the ludicrous possibility that a "deal" has been made between Chelsea's Jewish owner Roman Abramovich, who will be just one of many Russian billionaires to attend the match, and friends at the Israeli FA to ensure that Russia advances.
Russian striker Alexander Kerzhakov believes the claims are groundless and expects a tough match.
"This will be a hard game and I am sure nothing will be made easy for us," he said. "Israel is out of the race for qualification but this match is still very important for their image, and I am sure that we are about to meet a team of players that are preparing to fight. I don't know anything about Abramovich, other than that he is a Russian and he will therefore want us to qualify for the finals."
On TV: Israel vs Russia (live on Saturday at 8 p.m. on Channel 1).
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