Blue-and-white still a work in progress

Pair of Nations League draws vs Scotland and Slovakia a good start, but Ruttensteiner's Israel has plenty of room to improve

ISRAEL GOALKEEPER Ofir Marciano (left) and defender Eitan Tibi (right) have both been pivotal in the blue-and-white’s pair of opening Nations League draws. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISRAEL GOALKEEPER Ofir Marciano (left) and defender Eitan Tibi (right) have both been pivotal in the blue-and-white’s pair of opening Nations League draws.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, Israel picked up a pair of 1-1 draws against Scotland and Slovakia in UEFA Nations League play as the blue-and-white used the games as a dress rehearsal for next month’s European Championship Qualifying semifinal back in Glasgow.
New head coach Willi Ruttensteiner gained plenty of food for thought over the 180 minutes that will certainly help the team when it returns to Hampden Park with a ticket to the final against Serbia or Norway on the line.
The bench boss opened both matches with the exact same starting lineup, which featured Scotland-based Ofir Marciano in goal, a trio of central defenders in Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Eitan Tibi together with Nir Bitton and Hatem El Hamed – who both play for Celtic – and a pair of speedy wing-backs in Vitesse’s Eli Dasa and Taleb Tawhatha, who had most recently been with Ludogorets in Bulgaria.
In the midfield, Ruttensteiner had his captain Bibras Natcho, who features for Partizan Belgrade, starlet Manor Solomon, who plies his trade with Shakhtar Donetsk, and Maccabi’s Dor Peretz, with Hoffenheim striker Monas Dabbur and Eran Zahavi (who is looking to leave his Chinese squad Guanghzou R&F) up front.
There’s no question that this starting XI will be in line to feature in the decisive semifinal on October 8, barring any injuries. While their performance was admirable, there are still a number of areas of concern for the Austrian manager, with the most glaring being the ability to put the ball into the back of the goal.
Scoring just once per match simply won’t get the job done for Israel going forward as the team continues to rely heavily on Zahavi to provide the firepower. The blue-and-white created oodles of chances at home against Slovakia and with a bit more patience perhaps the finishing could have been better, but Ruttensteiner needs to find a way to get more players involved in the offense.
Youngster Ilay Elmkies, who came off the bench to rescue a point late in the Slovakia game, may be able to help out, but he is still too young and untested to be able to take a starting role with the team that once again saw Zahavi have the most chances at the target. In fact, Zahavi could have stolen the victory on the last shot of the game, but his effort went off the left post.
Dabbur looked good at Scotland with an amazing header chance just before half-time and he assisted on Zahavi’s tying goal in the first game, but at the Netanya Stadium he looked static, slow and just not into the contest. This was also the case with Tawhatha, which shouldn’t be a surprise when playing two games within 72 hours.
Peretz spoke about how the weather had been perfect in Scotland to play soccer while the same couldn’t be said about the situation back in Israel, which was very difficult to cope with. Perhaps Ruttensteiner underestimated not only the players’ fitness, but also the effects the sweltering heat would have in his charges.
Ruttensteiner himself looked wiped out in the post-game interview shown on television and when he walked into the press conference room following the game.
One good thing for Israel next month is that the Scotland game is being hosted by the Tartan Army and that it’s the first of three, with a home tilt against the Czech Republic and a trip to Slovakia in Nations League play following the semifinal.
Fitness and weather should be fine for soccer in Glasgow, however fans may be allowed back into Hampden Park, which would give the hosts a huge advantage.
On the defensive side of the game, although Israel gave up only one goal in each clash, it was how it conceded them that should raise the red flags.
At Scotland, Tibi’s questionable foul in the box right at the end of the first half resulted in a penalty that was promptly converted, which forced Ruttensteiner’s crew into a deficit situation at the break instead of being level.
Against Slovakia, Israel controlled the pace of play for the opening 13 minutes, but then out of nowhere and against the run of play, a mental breakdown by the central defenders at the top of the box gave wily striker Michal Duris a free attempt on a helpless Marciano to give the visitors a shocking lead.
It took the host players a good twenty minutes or so to regain their footing.
Could newcomer Joel Abu Hanna, who plays for Zorya Luhansk, be a potential replacement for Tibi? The coach will have to make that decision, which could be a risky one in such an important match.
As Ruttensteiner said, when you make mistakes at this level you will pay for them dearly, and Israel did in both of these cases.
However, it should also be noted that the squad could have easily lost to Scotland as James Forrest had a terrific chance near the end of the game.
But as luck – which is always a key factor – would have it, the blue-and-white escaped with the point, just as Slovakia did in Netanya.
Another thing Ruttensteiner needs to ponder before October is finding a way to play the Israeli league MVP Dan Glazer in the midfield instead of having him spend two games on the bench (save for a token appearance in the 90th minute of the Scotland clash). Yonatan Cohen, who did get some playing time in both games as a substitute, also needs to be groomed for a more important role with the national team.
Also, it’s clear that striker Shon Weissman can move and groove on the pitch and has a knack for finding space and threatening the goal. Weissman just moved to Real Valladolid in the Spanish La Liga from Austria’s Wolfsberger AC and should be considered to start in place of Dabbur, contingent on how much each end up playing over the next month for their respective club teams.
Lastly, we are witnessing the maturation of Solomon as the maestro in the midfield, with the future being now for the 21-year old Kfar Saba native. Solomon was able to do as he pleased at the height of 1.67 meters and dictated the tempo for Israel. His runs, vision and all-around dribbling is that of all-star caliber as the Shakhtar Donetsk player may soon head to a bigger league after starring in Ukraine.
Israel will need to continue to build a solid base of players if it wants to succeed in the international forum, with as many as possible playing in the top leagues around the continent. Ruttensteiner is off to a good start, but he still needs to tighten things up as he tries to guide his squad to the promised land.