Euro 16 Preview: Israel and Group B Challengers


Israel national team coach Eli Gutman. (Reuters)
Israel national team coach Eli Gutman. (Reuters)
After weeks of speculation, the Israeli national football team found out who they would face in the upcoming 2016 European Championship Qualifiers. 
Israel was drawn into group B. The following nations were also drawn into Group B: Andorra, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Wales, Cyprus and Belgium.
Here is a list of all the teams in Group B and some information on each team so you are prepared for the upcoming qualifying tournament. Israel’s first match of the qualifying tournament will kick off September 9, 2014 at home vs. an up and coming Belgium squad.
Israel national football team
FIFA Ranking: 56
Players to watch: Bibras Natkho (POAK), Nir Biton (Celtic), Eden Ben Basat (Toulouse) 
What they are saying: We are going to fight for the group. There are no easy matches, but we are very optimistic and determined. This is an interesting and balanced group. 
- Eli Guttman, Israel Head coach
Outlook: FIFA’s official website states, “the group winners, runners-up, and the best third-placed team (with the results against the sixth-place team discarded) directly qualify to the finals. 
The eight remaining third-placed teams contest two-legged play-offs to determine the last four qualifiers for the finals.”
The fact that teams that come in third place qualify for the tournament significantly boosts Israel’s chances of reaching the Euros for the first time ever. In several of Israel’s previous World Cup and Euro campaigns, Israel has found itself finishing in third place.
During the summer, Israel’s U-21 side showed that they can compete against anyone. They even beat a talented England squad 1-0, drew against Norway and remained competitive against a tough Italy team.
Several players from this team will be asked to play a bigger role in the upcoming campaign. Though it is still unclear what Israeli legend Yossi Benayoun will contribute to the squad, having him around the youngsters as a mentor/leader will help the player’s confidence. 
Though it is very unlikely that Israel will come in first or second place, Israel will compete with Wales for third place. After a decent World Cup campaign (where Israel drew vs. Portugal twice and nearly beat them in the first match), Israel understands that there is no reason the team should not qualify for the coveted third place. 
Andorra national football team 
FIFA Ranking: 198
Players to watch: Ildefons Lima (Andorra).It is unclear if he will retire before the campaign begins but he is Andorra’s all-time top scorer.
What they are saying: We are in a very strong group, especially with two sides that have greatly improved their football level such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium. As we said before the draw, there will be too much competition for third place. Regarding the rest, rivals like Israel, Wales or Cyprus, are very strong and tough opponents.
- Koldo Alvarez, Andorra Head coach
Outlook: Believe it or not, Andorra have only won one competitive match since they joined UEFA (1–0 World Cup qualifying win against Macedonia). Most of the squad plays semi-professional football in Andorra and a few of the players play in the lower-divisions of professional football in Spain. Despite winning only one competitive match in their history, Andorra should be pleased with this campaign as they avoided playing a major football powerhouse.
That being said, Andorra will most likely finish at the bottom of the group with zero points and only a couple goals scored. If Andorra are able to score several goals in the campaign, that will be considered a victory for them.
Bosnia and Herzegovina national football team
FIFA Ranking: 17
Players to watch: Edin Džeko (Manchester City), Asmir Begović (Stoke City)
What they are saying: Well, the media and public in general are quite satisfied with the draw - we avoided the neighbors and that was the most important I guess. When it comes to the opponents, most respect Belgium and see them as a top favorite of our group, but the fact that we beat them in three out of four previous encounters brings some optimism among the fans. Israel is considered to be the most "exotic" team in the group, because people know the less about their team. The last time we played it was in 1999, and a lot changed since then. But, most see them as a very strong opponent that we must respect and that will be hard to beat, especially in Tel Aviv. Cyprus and Andorra are not considered to be competitive. General opinion is that the group could be easier but it could be more difficult as well, and that Bosnia should win of two first places and qualify for the EURO.
When it comes to my personal opinion, I think a lot depends on our performances in the World Cup and the atmosphere that will follow up. Also, another very important question is if Susic will stay as a manager? He did not decide yet. Also, some players like Spahic and Misimovic will probably retire, but they also wait with the decision, so many unknowns before the qualifiers. In general, I think we should exploit the good atmosphere and a good result in previous qualifiers and that we must qualify for EURO if we want to establish ourselves as a top football nation. Three opening matches could easily decide our destiny - if we win all three of them (Cyprus at home, Wales away, Belgium at home) we would have mathematical and more than anything else psychological advantage. However, as I said, it is too early to say. 
- Sasa Ibrulj, Bosnian freelance sports journalist who has appeared in ESPN, The Guardian, The Blizzard and more. You can follow him on twitter @sasaibrulj
Outlook: After qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in their history. Bosnia and Herzegovina should battle it out with Belgium for the top spot in group B. They have footballers who play in all of the top clubs in the world and have a fantastic manager who they believe in. 
The real question everyone in the group is wondering is, how will they fare in the World Cup? 
Before we predict that Bosnia will come in second place in this group, we must see how they will play this summer against a very dangerous Argentina squad and a very frightening Nigeria side with plenty of talent. 
Now what I wrote in the last paragraph is what a lot of pundits are thinking--but in in my opinion Bosnia have all the tools to come in first place in this group. With Edin Dzeko playing terrific football at City, Miralem Pjanic blossoming in front of our eyes (for Serie A club Roba) and Asmir Begovic cementing himself as a very solid GK in the Premier League, this squad has talent at every position. 
Wales national football team
FIFA ranking: 51
Players to watch: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
What are they saying: The Belgium matches are a write off as they are a class above us. But with Bale and Ramsey, we shouldn''t fear either Bosnia or Israel. I would want 7-9 points from the 4 games vs. those 2 sides. 
At the same time we appreciate both Israel and Bosnia will look to take points vs. us. Our lack of a goal scoring striker and an unpopular manager are the only barriers to the most promising group in some time for the Welsh. 
- Rhys David, Cardiff City season ticket holder
Outlook: Despite having stars such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey on their squad, the Welsh national team struggled to score goals and did not have an impressive 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, winning only three matches. The one positive thing Welsh fans can reflect on is that their nation tied Belgium in Brussels with a late heroic goal by Aaron Ramsey in the previous campaign (2014 World Cup Quals).The fact that Wales were very competitive with Belgium in the WC campaign is nothing but a positive as the team know understands what they need to do to get a good result against them.
The media in Wales believe the national team can qualify for the Euro for the first time since 1976 and I tend to agree with them. If Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are able to get points vs. Belgium and Bosnia, they can be the dark horse in the group. The big question for Wales is, who will step up besides Ramsey and Bale?
Cyprus national football team
FIFA ranking: 122
Players to watch: Costas Charalambides (APOEL), Pieros Sotiriou (APOEL)
What they are saying: For a team like Cyprus, we are not really in a position to speak about an easy draw for us. We know some things about our opponents but we will be aiming to find out more information about them. We will try and be competitive in this group, try to play some attractive football and to make our games interesting to all. We need to give our best on the pitch. It is not right to be firing off big words. We need to look at every game as it comes and move forward step by step. Only when the group games are finished, can we look back and evaluate how we have done. 
- Charalambos Christodoulou, Cyprus Head coach
Outlook: Like Wales, Cyprus had some very solid results in the last campaign (beating Iceland 1-0 and tying Switzerland 0-0) but did not find much consistency besides that finishing with only 5 points out of a possible 30.
That said, they have a new manager in charge of the side and the press in Cyprus believes that they will be able to compete against Israel and Wales for the third position. Most of the players on the team player for Cyprus powerhouse club APOEL and have played against top talent in Europe as the club usually plays in European competition every year. I believe Cyprus will upset a few clubs but I still expect them to finish bellow Israel and Wales. 
Belgium national football team
FIFA ranking: 11
Players to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid)
What they are saying: The draw could have been much worse for us. I am not going to say it is a beautiful draw, because every match is difficult, but I will return home to Belgium feeling satisfied. We have avoided the big nations. Against these opponents we are able to win every match and that is what we will try to do. Our goal is first place in the group, but even if we come second, no one will complain. Normally we are just obliged to qualify from the group. The fact that in the past we had it difficult against Bosnia? The past does not count anymore, we are looking forward. We first will try to play a good World Cup tournament. We do not want to want to talk too much; we just want to show it on the pitch. 
- Marc Wilmots, Belgium Head coach 
Outlook: Belgium find themselves as the Crème de la crème of the group and should come in first place. Many pundits across the world have stated that this Belgium squad is the best squad they have ever had in their history and that this team is capable of becoming one of the best in the world. The keyword is capable. The incredibly talented squad has an unbelievable amount of players who are currently starring across the world, but the team is still very young. Like Bosnia, we must see how the team performs in the World Cup before we can really examine the team.
One thing is for sure, when Belgium arrives in Tel Aviv on September 9th spectators will get to see some of the best players in the world.