Blue-and-white in search of maiden conquest

Nations League group play in full swing with Albania and Iceland also vying for playoff round.

 AFTER AN end-to-end 2-2 draw with Iceland this week in UEFA Nations League play, Shon Weissman (9) and the Israel National Team visits Albania tonight. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
AFTER AN end-to-end 2-2 draw with Iceland this week in UEFA Nations League play, Shon Weissman (9) and the Israel National Team visits Albania tonight.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

The Israel National Team is back in action on Friday night as it takes on Albania in Tirana still looking for its first victory in UEFA Nations League action after having drawn against Iceland this past week in Haifa.

Along with Albania and Iceland, the blue-and-white features in League B, Group 2 which is comprised of three teams instead of four as Russia was suspended from play due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Following the match in Albania, Israel will fly to Reykjavik to play Iceland on Monday evening.

Head coach Alon Hazan’s debut on the sidelines ended in bittersweet fashion as the two squads played to a 2-2 draw and split the points up at Sammy Ofer Stadium.

With over 13,000 fans in the stands, the Israel National Team and Iceland began the match off with few chances as they each tried to feel out their opponent.

However, the blue-and-white was able to break the ice when Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Manor Solomon sent Celtic starlet Liel Abada a perfect pass that the striker put by Iceland ’keeper Runar Runarsson to take a 1-0 lead in the 25th minute.

 ALON HAZAN has been with the Israel National Team program in various capacities for more than three decades and was named head coach this week. (credit: IFA) ALON HAZAN has been with the Israel National Team program in various capacities for more than three decades and was named head coach this week. (credit: IFA)

But just as the half was nearing its end, Israel shot-stopper Ofir Marciano fumbled the ball and Thorir Helgason thumped it home to head into halftime all knotted up at 1-1.

The visitors came out of the break searching for a go-ahead goal, which it received from Arnor Sigurdsson to go up 2-1 in the 53rd minute.

However, substitute Shon Weissman – who was just named Real Valladolid’s Player of the Season – took a Doron Leidner cross and nodded it behind a helpless Runarsson to earn a point apiece.

“We played against a tough national team and it wasn’t all in our control,” Hazan said. “We had a good game and we played well in transition. The players gave their all and we had enough chances, but we can’t be too greedy as the result reflects the two sides’ play.”

“I am very disappointed in myself, but I am happy with the goal,” noted Weissman. “The fans were with us when we were down 2-1. We will take the result into our next two games on the road. I am very happy to be here and I am in good shape. I want to lead and influence this team and when I came on in the 60th minute I scored one goal out of three chances. We have a great team here and I am excited to do the best that I can.”

Iceland and Albania played to a 1-1 draw on Monday ahead of Israel’s game against the Shqiponjat (The Eagles) as the blue-and-white will look to take six points away from home in order to put it in position to advance to the playoff round.

The two nations have played each other four times since 2016 with each squad collecting two wins. The most recent match between the two took place in 2018, when Israel won 2-0 in Beersheba.

Assistant coach Alon Harazi knows that the three national teams are fairly equal and that they will all be vying for a chance to qualify for the European Championships through the Nations League, especially without having to contend with Russia in their group.

“We know that this will be a tough game against a very good opponent. We have seen that all the teams in our group, including Iceland, are roughly at the same level and we aren’t going to worry about the result of the match between the two of them.

“Albania has many very good players who feature in some of the top leagues in the world and that should also give us some proportion. Our national team will be able to cause them issues, but we also know that this won’t be the same game as the last time we played there. We have to understand that even if we start of well like last game, we have to know how to kill it off immediately.”

Hapoel Beersheba veteran central defender Miguel Vitor, who made his Israel National Team debut at home against Iceland after obtaining citizenship, reflected on playing for the blue-and-white and what he has seen so far from his new teammates.

“It’s very special for me to be able to represent Israel. The country has given me and my family so much over the last number of years and this has been so exciting for me and a very big moment. One player can’t change an entire national team and there are now a number of new faces, but we can all improve and I’m sure we will play even better in the upcoming games.

“The national team needs time and I have to get used to the players and vice versa. There were a bunch of good things to take from the last game including the fact that the younger players make up over 50% of the team. I believe that we have a good chance in this group and the teams are all very even.

We were better than Iceland, but what counts is the final score. The games will all be tight and anything can happen. Now that we had a draw at home we will need to make up for that on the road.”

In other National Team related news, the Under-21 team qualified for the 2023 European Championship playoffs after defeating San Marino 2-0, coupled with Poland’s 2-1 loss to Germany.

The results allowed the junior blue-and-white to finish in second place in Group B with 19 points, one more than Poland, which ended the group stages with 18 points, as Germany topped the table with 27 points.

Guy Luzon’s team almost ended up outside of the playoffs when it fell 1-0 at Latvia last week, but with Germany downing Poland in the final group game, the blue-and-white put itself into position to punch a ticket to the Euros next summer, slated to take place in Romania and Georgia.

It is still to be determined who Israel will play in the playoff round, which will take place later in the year.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” Luzon said. “No one will remember this team if we don’t advance to the Euros. We will go into the playoff games and do everything possible to get there as people will only remember if we do exactly that. The loss to Latvia was rough as we had chances but couldn’t score. There were some tough days ahead of this game against San Marino, but we were able to complete our mission.”