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Six-and-a-half weeks before its crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against England, Israel's dress rehearsal against Ukraine on Wednesday night ended in a 1-1 draw at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The friendly leaves Israel coach Dror Kashtan with plenty to ponder in the coming weeks, with the side's traditional frailties on display once again. The team's troublesome defense is still far from finding the stability needed to deal with top European sides and the team's offense is still desperately lacking a dangerous front man.
However, Kashtan will also be able to take some positives out of Wednesday's friendly match, with the first being the introduction of teenager Ben Sahar to the senior squad. The Chelsea striker became the youngest player ever to appear for the national team, making his debut at the age of 17 and 181 days, beating Uri Malmilian's previous record by 85 days.
"It was amazing," Sahar said after the match. "I was a little excited at the start of the match, but loosened up as it progressed. I had a good game, but I'm sure that I can still do much better."
Sahar had a relatively quiet night, but Kashtan was nevertheless pleased with the player's display and with his fellow debutant, Yuval Shpungin.
"I'm very happy with the process the team is going through," said Kashtan. "We regularly call up six or seven young players and today two of them made their debut. I think Israeli soccer has a very talented generation of players on the horizon and I believe that if we are patient, the team has a bright future."
Other positives for Israel were the display of Arik Benado, who made a record 90th appearance for the national team, and the form of goalkeeper Dudu Awat, who came to the rescue time and time again Wednesday night.
Israel had the upper hand in the first half and took the lead thanks to Walid Badier's accurate volley. The Ukrainians seized the initiative after halftime and were rightfully rewarded with an equalizer when Maksym Kalinichenko scored in the 74th minute.
"I'm very pleased with the way the team played tonight," Kashtan said at the post-match press conference. "I think we were tactically sound and that we played very well in the first half. You learn from the positives and the negatives and I feel that we showed a vast improvement tonight."
Israel pressured its opponents early on, but the visitors were the first to come close to scoring when, in the 10th minute of the match, Anatolii Tymoschuk hit a powerful shot from 20 meters out that was well saved by Awat.
Moments later, the hosts had their first opportunity when Yossi Benayoun's cross got the better of the visitors' 'keeper, but with no Israeli on hand to turn the ball into the net, the ball was cleared for a corner.
In the 26th minute, Andriy Voronin squandered the Ukrainians' best chance of the half when he failed to score from the center of the box after a good team move.
The visitors began to stamp their authority on the match and three minutes later, Oleg Gusiev was only denied by Awat, who cleared the Ukrainian's venomous shot.
Seven minutes before halftime, Israel grabbed the lead against the run of play. A poor clearance by the visitors' keeper, Bohdan Shust, was volleyed into the net by Badier from 25 meters out to the joy of the 12,000 fans who showed up for the match.
Ukraine was eager to equalize at the start of the second half, but Israel had the first dangerous shot on goal. Sahar's curled shot went just wide of the left post to the relief of the Ukrainian 'keeper.
The visitors' superior possession began to pay off as the half continued and in the 65th minute, they were denied once again by Awat, who tipped substitutes Ruslan Rotan's shot over the crossbar.
Nine minutes later, Rotan earned his team a penalty shot. The Ukrainian forward was brought down in the box by Salim Toama and the visitors' drew level after Kalinichenko turned in the rebound after his initial penalty kick was saved.
Israel had one more chance to snatch the win in the 89th minute, but substitute Pini Balili failed to complete the simple job of lobbing the ball over the 'keeper into the empty goal and the match ended in a draw.
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