Blue-and-white off to flying start in Nicosia

Israel beats Cyprus 2-1 in Euro 2016 qualifying opener thanks to Damari and Ben-Haim goals.

Israel’s goalscorers Omer Damari (left) and Tal Ben-Haim celebrate on Friday night after leading the blue-and-white to a 2-1 victory over Cyprus in Nicosia. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s goalscorers Omer Damari (left) and Tal Ben-Haim celebrate on Friday night after leading the blue-and-white to a 2-1 victory over Cyprus in Nicosia.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel coach Eli Gutman hailed his team’s performance in the 2-1 victory over Cyprus in Nicosia on Friday, but warned against complacency ahead of the blue-and-white’s second Euro 2016 qualifier in Andorra on Monday.
The national team got its qualifying campaign off to an ideal start with a road win against a Cyprus side brimming with confidence following a victory over Bosnia.
A beautifully worked team move saw Israel take the lead in the 38th minute, with Tal Ben-Haim providing the assist for striker Omer Damari’s opener.
Ben-Haim doubled Israel’s advantage in the 45th minute, finishing off a blueand- white counter attack by elegantly weaving past two Cyprus defenders before firing beyond goalkeeper Antonis Georgallides.
Israel sat back in the second half and paid the price in the 67th minute after Konstantinos Makridis scored from close range.
Israel ultimately had debutant goalkeeper Ofir Martziano to thank for leaving Nicosia with all three points after he tipped over Vincent Laban’s powerful header in the 90th minute.
“The most important thing is that we opened the campaign on the right foot on the road against a confident opponent,” said Gutman. “We reached a lot of chances in the first half and there’s no reason we should sit back in the second half. We almost gave ourselves a heart attack at the end but I guess we wouldn’t be the Israel national team if we hadn’t.”
In other matches in Group B on Friday, Wales and Bosnia drew 0-0 in Cardiff, while Belgium thumped Andorra 6-0.
A superb performance by goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey allowed Wales to hold Bosnia to a goalless stalemate.
Welsh forward Gareth Bale and Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko both had a quiet game as their markers gave them little room to operate on a slippery surface, with the visitors creating more chances.
In its first competitive encounter since its World Cup quarterfinal loss to Argentina, Belgium opened the scoring through a Kevin de Bruyne penalty on the half-hour mark and then ripped apart Andorra’s defense.
A Nacer Chadli half-volley doubled the lead and a fine lay-off from Divock Origi for De Bruyne’s second made it 3-0 at halftime.
Origi turned one defender and beat another for number four, before Dries Mertens bagged two, a header after a superb long ball from Radja Nainggolan and a shimmy and sharp shot to make it six.
Wales currently leads the group with four points from two matches, with Belgium and Israel on three points from a single game and Cyprus with three points from two contests. Bosnia has just one point after two matches.
Thanks to the new format of the European Championships, even third place will be sufficient to qualify for the playoffs, with the top two to advance automatically to Euro 2016 in France, which will involve 24 nations for the first time.
Israel already arrived in Spain on Saturday ahead of Monday’s qualifier against Andorra. The blue-and-white can’t afford to claim any less than three points against Andorra, which will leave it perfectly placed ahead of its first home qualifier against Bosnia in Haifa on November 16.
“We are going to really sweat in Andorra and not because it is hot there,” warned Gutman.
“This was a topsy-turvy match, but we are ultimately judged by results,” said captain Tal Ben-Haim. “We beat a good team which overcome Bosnia on the road. We have plenty to improve on, but it is always better to work on mistakes after a win. It is hard to explain what happened to us in the second half. We sat back and it hurt us, but luckily we held on for the win.
“I don’t even want to think about a negative outcome against Andorra,” he added. “We saw Wales had trouble there and we will be playing on synthetic grass for the first time. It will be interesting, but we must take three points and move on.”