Soccer: Blue-and-white begins preparations for Spain

Coach Levy optimistic as Israel squad assembles ahead of daunting World Cup qualifier in Gijon.

Israel national team coach Elisha levy  (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel national team coach Elisha levy
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel coach Elisha Levy insisted on Monday that the national team will play with a positive attitude when it visits powerhouse Spain in 2018 World Cup qualification in Gijon on Friday.
Israel enters the encounter just a single point behind Spain and Italy in Group G, picking up nine of a possible 12 points from four matches, beating Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Albania, while losing to Italy.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs.
Since discovering who it would be facing in the group back in July 2015, it was clear that Israel’s realistic goal should be to finish in third place, and the blueand- white is well placed to do that, with Albania and Macedonia still to visit the Holy Land.
A third-place finish can help Israel improve its seeding ahead of Euro 2020 qualification.
The blue-and-white had been far from impressive in its campaign until claiming a 3-0 win in Albania in its most recent qualifier back in November. It faces a challenge of a completely different magnitude in Gijon though, especially with Spain desperate for all three points in its battle with Italy for first place.
Nevertheless, Levy is confident his team can do more than just defend in Spain.
“We know we are facing one of the strongest national teams in the world,” said Levy on Monday ahead of the squad’s first training session in the buildup to the match. “We will go to Spain with the goal of playing positive soccer. We want to threaten Spain’s goal and do all we can to get a good result. We don’t want to capitulate against any opponent. This is a big test for us, but we will do our best.”
Spain’s squad includes all its big guns, with Chelsea forward Pedro receiving a recall for the match against Israel and the international friendly against France, to be played next Tuesday, after nearly nine months out of the national team.
AC Milan winger Gerard Deulofeu meanwhile returns to the squad for the first time since 2014 and Real Sociedad midfielder Asier Illarramendi has earned his first call up.
Pedro was a key member of the Spain team that won the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championships in 2012 but had yet to be called up by new coach Julen Lopetegui, who took over from Vicente del Bosque last summer.
Pedro had been criticized for reacting badly to being left out of the starting line-up during the 2016 European Championships in France, telling reporters in June he did not want to be part of the squad if he did not play.
The former Barcelona forward struggled in his first campaign at Chelsea since leaving the Catalans in 2015 but has had a new lease of life under Antonio Conte, scoring 11 goals and providing seven assists in all competitions for the Premier League leaders, who are also in the FA Cup semifinals.
Reuters contributed to this report.