Blue-and-white braces for tough qualifiers

Gutman looks to have starting lineup set, with veteran Ben-Haim to lead defense against Cyprus.

Israel's national soccer team at practice (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
Israel's national soccer team at practice
(photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
With Yossi Benayoun not being called up to the squad, Tal Ben-Haim will lead out the Israel national team as captain when it begins its Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Cyprus in Nicosia on Friday.
The blue-and-white squad arrived in Cyprus after a short flight on Tuesday as it enters the final phase of its preparations for the opening qualifier. Israel was set to host Belgium on September 9 in its first match, but the encounter was postponed to March 31, 2015 due to the security situation in the country at the time.
Israel coach Eli Gutman seems to have already decided on his starting line-up at the start of the week, although there was never any doubt regarding Ben-Haim’s place at the center of the defense.
The 32-year-old defender has played a major role for the team for over a decade and was used by Gutman in the starting lineup last year even though he made just 14 combined appearances for his club sides over the previous two seasons.
With Ben-Haim cementing a place in English Championship club Charlton Athletic’s starting 11 this season, Gutman was spared any awkward questions regarding his blind faith in the veteran defender.
Ben-Haim will once more be counted upon to shore up Israel’s traditionally nervy back-four, especially with goalkeeper Ofir Martziano set to make his international debut on Friday.
Israel will visit Andorra three days later, with Group B also including Bosnia and Wales. For the first time in the European Championships history, the tournament will involve 24 nations, eight more than previous events. Therefore, the top two teams in each group will automatically qualify for Euro 2016 in France, with the best third-placed finisher to also gain direct qualification. The remaining eight third-placed teams will take part in play-offs during November 2015, giving Israel real hope of reaching a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.
“We have all had enough of hearing stories from 40 years ago,” said Ben- Haim on Tuesday. “It is very important that we open our qualifying campaign on the right foot. That will give us a real boost. This isn’t an easy group, but we can do it.”
Like Ben-Haim, almost all of the Israel players are entering the qualifiers in good form.
“When we were supposed to play Belgium we weren’t in a good state and we were happy that the match was postponed,” admitted the former Chelsea and Manchester City defender.
“We feel much better now and we need to translate our good form to the match against Cyprus.
“This is a massive and almost unique opportunity,” he added. “Two teams advance automatically and the third reaches the playoffs. We have our fate in our own hands and we hope not to disappoint this time. I think we are better than Cyprus on paper, even though they beat Bosnia on the road.
We are looking to win this match, but we know it isn’t going to be easy.”
After much deliberation, Gutman decided to pick Martziano to start in goal in place of Ariel Harush, who played in the team’s past three friendlies following the retirement of Dudu Aouate.
Gutman is set to otherwise use an almost identical lineup to the one which beat Honduras 4-2 in the blueand- white’s most recent friendly at the start of June.
Omri Ben-Harush, Eitan Tibi, Ben- Haim and Eyal Meshumar are expected to form the back-four, with the latter replacing Yuval Spungin, who is out through injury.
Sheran Yeini and Bibras Natcho are likely to start as defensive midfielders, while Eran Zahavi, Tal Ben-Haim and Gili Vermut will play in more attacking midfield positions. Omer Damari is set to be the team’s lone striker.
“All you have in international soccer is your last match and our last match against Honduras was pretty good,” Gutman said. “The most important thing for a coach is his belief in his players and I believe in my players.”