Blue-and-white back to the pitch vs Iceland

New-look National Team, led by Hazan but missing injured stars, kicks off Nations League campaign

AFTER A stellar season in Spain, Israeli forward Shon Weissman (right) is back home with the blue-and-white for the start of its Nations League campaign tonight against Iceland. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
AFTER A stellar season in Spain, Israeli forward Shon Weissman (right) is back home with the blue-and-white for the start of its Nations League campaign tonight against Iceland.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

The Israel National Team gets back to action when it hosts Iceland at Haifa’s Sammy Ofer Stadium on Thursday night in 2022/23 UEFA Nations League play ahead of the 2024 European Championships.

The blue-and-white, which is in League B, Group 2, will only need to contend with two teams in Iceland and Albania in the group stage as it attempts to advance to the semifinals next June. Russia, which was originally also part of the group, has been suspended from participation due to the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, opening up a legitimate chance that Israel could advance to the Euros via the Nations League instead of the traditional qualification route.

Over the next two weeks, new head coach Alon Hazan and his squad will play three matches, with away trips to both Albania and Iceland following Thursday’s home contest.

However, Israel will be without a number of its star players – including Eran Zahavi, who just had surgery and injured captain Bibras Natcho – placing a tremendous amount of responsibility on some of the younger players.

One new recruit who will be available is freshly minted citizen, central defender Miguel Vitor, who had been questionable to play in the home game as the Israel Football Association was awaiting for FIFA clearance to allow him to grace the field for the blue-and-white. That approval came late Tuesday evening and Vitor, arguably one of the best defenders in the Israeli league, will be able to shore up the back line.

 Soccer Football - World Cup - UEFA Qualifiers - Group F - Israel v Austria - Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa, Israel - September 4, 2021 Israel's Shon Weissman celebrates scoring their fourth goal with teammates. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) Soccer Football - World Cup - UEFA Qualifiers - Group F - Israel v Austria - Sammy Ofer Stadium, Haifa, Israel - September 4, 2021 Israel's Shon Weissman celebrates scoring their fourth goal with teammates. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Hazan is well aware of the challenges ahead with a team that may not be one of Israel’s strongest.

“I don’t feel any pressure that some of the veteran players aren’t here, although we do have some absences. Of course, I always want to have everyone available, but it’s not in our control as injuries are part of the game. We expect and will wait for them to return to the fold, but we have other players as well.

“We are in the process of building a national team and it’s an opportunity for the younger players to prove their worth to be a part of the starting lineup and the squad.”

Alon Hazan

One of the veteran players in the squad, Dor Peretz, who spent the past season playing in Italy’s Serie A with Venezia, understands that the absence of some players will mean others will need to step up.

“There is no question that some players will have to take more upon themselves, including leadership roles. We have a new generation of players here that will get serious playing time and the responsibility is also on them.”

Peretz, who has played as a midfielder throughout his career with Maccabi Tel Aviv before heading off to Italy, was able to get in some playing time over the last month of his campaign that saw his club team relegated to the second division. But that time on the pitch will be a plus for Israel as he comes into the game ready to take a leading role.

“Fortunately, I am in good shape as I was able to play over the last few games of my season in Italy. We ended up getting relegated, which is not the best, but I am coming into the national team in good shape and I am here to help out my teammates. I am familiar with Alon Hazan and he can take us to the next level as individuals and as a team.”

While Peretz has been in action of late, Manor Solomon, who plays his club soccer for Shakhtar Donetsk, has not due to the situation in Ukraine. However, the starlet who has been rumored to make a move to Fulham in the English Premier League feels that he has kept himself in tip-top shape and is more than ready for the test that awaits him.

“I haven’t played in an official game in a long time, way back in December with Shakhtar, but over the past few months I have been training as hard as I can and as I have my entire life. I worked on things that I wanted to improve and there were also some friendly matches with Shakhtar in Turkey so I feel great.

“Official matches are different, but I am in great shape and I can’t wait to bring what I can to the national team. I still don’t know where my club future lies and it looks like I won’t play for Shakhtar. Soon enough a decision as to where I will play will be made public. It’s just a matter of time and I am in a good position.”

Solomon also reflected on the fact that there are plenty of new faces and other players who will now take a central role with the national team.

“We have a great new generation here and I have to really give it my all.”

A couple of those relatively new faces are Sean Goldberg and Muhammed Abu Fani, who both took the Israel League Championship with Maccabi Haifa just a couple of weeks ago.

Goldberg was named the defensive player of the season while Abu Fani has one of the best engines in the league and can be a game-changer with one touch of the ball.

“I am coming to the national team as an integral player and one that can both contribute and help out,” Goldberg said. “I know that Sammy Ofer Stadium can give us a big push and I am also aware that there are expectations.”

Abu Fani also looked ahead to greeting the fans at his home facility.

“There are many young players here and I hope that we will do what we need to advance. As a Maccabi Haifa player who has had a couple of good seasons, it’s exciting for me to get to play at Sammy Ofer Stadium and I can’t wait to see the fans as we need their help, especially when we play at home.”

Another player who will be able to take a step up is Shon Weissman, who just helped his Spanish team Real Valladolid achieve promotion back to the top league, La Liga, while scoring 20 goals and earning the club’s Player of the Season award.

“We have a great national team and I have trained under Alon Hazan since I was 15 years old in with junior teams. I’m happy to be here and of course I want to play. Without Russia in our group now we have a really good chance to advance as we are on par with the other two teams that we will play.

“We are on a mission to win and even without Eran Zahavi and Bibras Natcho we have very good players. Any player that replaces them on the pitch will be able to do what’s needed. But most importantly, I want to see tons of Israeli flags in the stands and that is super important for me.”