Israel hosts Italy in World Cup qualifying opener

Blue-and-white braces for powerhouse, aiming to register stunning upset in Haifa.

Eran Zahavi and Elisha Levy (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Eran Zahavi and Elisha Levy
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel captain Eran Zahavi is dreaming of a blue-and-white win against Italy in their 2018 World Cup qualifying opener in Haifa on Monday night. But considering the clear gap in quality between the squads, and the fact Italy hasn’t lost a qualifier in 10 years, even the ultra-competitive Zahavi admitted that Israel would be more than happy to settle for a draw.
Israel’s hopes of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 were already all but dashed last July after being paired with former holders Spain and Italy in qualifying Group G. Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically, with the eight best runners- up to advance to home-and-away playoffs. Israel will also face Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Elisha Levy replaced Eli Gutman as coach after Israel picked up just four of a possible 21 points from its final seven Euro 2016 qualifiers, ending its group in a disappointing fourth place.
With a top-two finish seemingly out of the question, Israel’s goal will be to end the group in third place ahead of Albania, which reached Euro 2016, and just as importantly, regain its lost pride from the previous campaign.
“We ended the last campaign where we deserved to and if I look back at what happened perhaps the conclusion is that we need to be more daring as we have nothing to lose,” explained Zahavi. “We should have gone for all three points against Wales for example. I know they are the better team, but we should have tried.
“We will do everything to win the game against Italy,” he added. “But a draw is also an excellent result.”
Zahavi will start up front for Israel, with Levy to continue with Hapoel Beersheba goalkeeper Dudu Goresh in goal, while Shir Tzedek of Beersheba and Eitan Tibi of Maccabi Tel Aviv will likely team up in the center of the defense. Ofir Davidzada, who left Beersheba for Gent in Belgium last week, will start at left-back, while Ben Bitton of Beersheba is favored to beat out Eli Dasa of Maccabi to play at right-back.
Nir Bitton of Celtic, Beram Kayal, who plays for English Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion, and Roei Kehat of Maccabi Haifa are expected to start the match in the middle of the field, with Eyal Golasa struggling with a thigh injury. Maccabi winger Tal Ben- Haim will work the flanks while Levy is leaning towards starting with Brighton striker Tomer Hemed rather than Omer Atzili, who last week left Beitar Jerusalem for Granada CF of La Liga.
Levy has had little time to work with the team, but Zahavi was full of praise for the new coach.
“It is clear that Levy is a players’ coach. I don’t like to compare between different coaches, but there is a different atmosphere with Levy,” said Zahavi.
Italy, which hasn’t lost in 50 qualifiers since September 2006, will be without forward Andrea Belotti, who was one of several new faces called up for coach Giampiero Ventura’s first squad.
Italy has already been deprived of Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, who both picked up injuries in last week’s friendly against France, while Leonardo Bonucci is missing due to family reasons.
“We are making adjustments in an attempt to close the gaps between the teams,” said Levy. “Clearly this isn’t going to be an easy campaign as we also face Albania and Macedonia. But it is important that we compete with all these teams and in soccer anything is possible.
“I’m really excited. Nothing can prepare you for this,” he added. “I have coached in the Champions League and won championships but guiding the Israel national team is a calling.”
On TV: World Cup qualification: Israel vs Italy (live on Channel 1 at 9:45 p.m)