Israel's national soccer team will be looking to cap an unbeaten World Cup qualification campaign on Saturday night with a win against Group Four minnows the Faroe Islands.
The match, which will kick off at 9:10 p.m. at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, is Israel's final game in the 10-match qualifying run. Israel is currently in third place in Group Four with 15 points from nine matches one point behind joint leaders Switzerland and France.
Israel, currently in third place with 15 points from nine games, remains the only of the four teams chasing one of the top two spots in Group 4 that has no control over its destiny. Both Switzerland (16 points from eight games) and France (16 points from eight games) can finish first with wins in their remaining two games, while Ireland (13 points from eight games) can guarantee at least second place and a playoff spot if it wins its remaining two games.
France visits Switzerland and the Irish are in Cyprus on Saturday. The qualifying concludes on October 12 Erev Yom Kippur when Ireland and Switzerland clash in Dublin and France and Cyprus meet in Paris.
Only the group winner advances automatically to the World Cup. The runner-up will face another second place finisher in a home-and-away playoff series for one of the final tickets to Germany.
Although there are still several scenarios that could see Israel take one of the top two spots in the group, there are only two that don't involve getting unexpected help from Cyprus (four points from eight matches).
Of course, the blue-and-white would first need to take care of business in Ramat Gan against the Faroese. If France beats Switzerland and then the Swiss finish with a draw in Ireland, the French would win the group with at least 19 points, Israel (18) would be second and Switzerland (17) and Ireland (no more than 17) would go home empty handed.
The second scenario involves either France or Switzerland finishing both of their remaining games in ties. Assuming that France will beat Cyprus at home in the group's final game, Grant and co. will hope to wind up tied with Switzerland. But then the tiebreaker would come down to goal difference, where the Swiss have a seven-goal advantage. In other words, Israel would need to beat the Faroe Islands by at least eight goals to have a chance.
National team coach Avraham Grant remains optimistic about Israel's chances of qualification. "I always believe and hope; if I wouldn't have believed I would have never taken the job to coach this team," he said at a press conference Thursday evening.
"The fact that we are facing our final game and that we still have a chance to qualify is testimony to how far Israeli soccer has come."
Grant came to the press conference straight from a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who thanked Grant and the team for their successful campaign and wished them luck in their coming fixture.
Grant, clearly still emotional from his meeting with Sharon, tried to lower the expectations for a big Israeli win. "It would be arrogant for us to say that we are going to thrash the Faroese," he noted. "The game starts at 0-0 and we will first and foremost just try and win the game."
Star midfielder Yossi Benayoun trained on Thursday and is set to start the game despite a fracture in one of his ribs.
"I'm suffering from severe pain in my ribs but I plan to play on Saturday," said Benayoun, who plays for West Ham in the English Premier League. "The team doctor told me that the pain will not go away even if I rest for a few days so I'll just have to try and play despite the pain."
Tal Ben-Haim is set to once again anchor the blue-andwhite defense and is also hopeful Israel can qualify. "We have to do the job on Saturday night," he said.
"Were obviously better the Faroese, but we need to be cautious and stay concentrated throughout the full 90 minutes in order to win. It's not easy when you need other results to go your way, but I believe we've got a reasonable chance of qualifying."
"Everything in soccer is possible," said captain Avi Nimni. "Nobody gave us a chance to qualify at the start of the campaign and we're at the last game and we still can qualify. I'm very optimistic."
Injuries dent French chances
France's chances of qualifying could be affected by key injuries and two suspensions.
On Saturday, France will be missing strikers David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry and defenders Gael Givet and Jonathan Zebina to injury. Plus, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and defender Willy Sagnol are suspended.
"Without Henry and Trezeguet it might be more difficult for us to score, but we've won other matches without them," France coach Raymond Domenech said. "We have a hard physical match ahead of us in Bern."
If Les Bleus win on Saturday, they'll qualify due to their superior head-to-head record over Switzerland and Ireland the two teams which could catch France on points.
Henry has a recurring groin injury and Trezeguet hurt his thigh in an Italian league match. Djibril Cisse, Sylvain Wiltord and Sidney Govou are among the possible replacements. Trezeguet is also expected to miss France's game against Cyprus on Wednesday at the Stade de France.
Givet also has a thigh injury and will be replaced by 30-year-old rookie, Franck Jurietti.
Barthez, who was suspended by the French soccer federation in December for spitting at a referee, will return October 16. Gregory Coupet, who has made 15 appearances for France, will be goalkeeper.
Sagnol was banned after receiving a yellow card during France's 1-0 win over Ireland last month.
Zebina's replacement, Anthony Reveillere, has played two international matches in the last two years.
Also, midfielder Zinedine Zidane is still struggling with a groin problem.
Switzerland playmaker Hakan Yakin also has a groin injury and will miss his country's games against France and Ireland. That means striker Alexander Frei, who finished as the French league's top scorer last season with 20 goals, will carry the nation's goal-scoring hopes.
Frei, despite only scoring once in nine matches for club Rennes, has netted six goals in Switzerland's last five matches and has 22 goals from 38 international appearances.