Benayoun may not be what he used to, but benefit undeniable

Sinai Says: Few people question that Benayoun remains one of the country’s best players, albeit an aging one.

YOSSI BENAYOUN 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The question may seem like a simple one, but it has divided Israeli soccer over the past couple of years.
Is the Israel national team better off with or without Yossi Benayoun?
Benayoun is arguably the greatest player in Israel's history.
However, there are those who claim that the 32-year-old’s presence in the blue-and-white squad has harmed rather than helped Israel’s chances over recent campaigns.
Naturally, Benayoun is not the player he was 10 or even five years ago.
He has suffered the inevitable decline in form experienced by every player who has ever grown older and edged ever closer towards the twilight of his career.
Nevertheless, few people question that Benayoun remains one of the country’s best players, albeit an aging one.
So why has Israel coach Eli Gutman lost so much sleep regarding whether or not to call up Benayoun, not to mention use him in the starting lineup, since he took the helm in December 2011? Gutman named Benayoun to his squad at the start of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, but soon dropped him, as well as the likes of Tal Ben-Haim, Itay Shechter and Ben Sahar, due to their lack of playing time for their respected club sides.
Following the 4-0 home humbling at the hands of Russia last September, the coach declared that there was no substitute for playing time and that he would only call up players who see significant action on a weekly basis.
With Benayoun seeing little of the field at Arsenal last season and missing much of the first half of this season at West Ham United due to injury, Gutman felt he had no option but to drop the long-time captain so that it would be clear that no Israeli player is immune to the new policy.
Almost 14 years after making his debut for the national team, the Chelsea midfielder was cut for professional reasons for the first time ahead of October’s qualifiers against Luxembourg.
The blue-and-white managed just fine without him, thrashing Luxembourg twice in five days to climb up to second place in Group F ahead of the powerful Portugal on goal difference.
The general consensus among experts was that Benayoun’s absence allowed the likes of Maor Melikson, Bibras Natcho and Maharan Radi to flourish in the midfield.
Finally they were able to escape the massive shadow cast by the slenderly-built Benayoun.
However, can matches against the lowly Luxembourg really testify to any significant change to the makeup of the national team? Gutman clearly doesn’t think so as he recalled Benayoun, as well as Ben-Haim and Shechter, for the upcoming qualifiers against Portugal on Friday and at Northern Ireland next Tuesday.
Benayoun returned to Chelsea in January after West Ham chose not to renew his loan deal and he has since made just seven appearances, starting twice.
Nevertheless, Gutman understandably decided to make an exception to his rule as Benayoun is a member of one of the biggest clubs in the world, which doesn’t explain the call ups of Ben-Haim, who has played just once for QPR since February, and Shechter, who has made only four appearances for Swansea City in 2013.
Gutman has yet to reveal the role he plans to allocate Benayoun against Portugal. However, the veteran, who is only four appearances shy of equaling Arik Benado’s Israel record of 94 caps and is also ranked second all-time with his 24 goals for the blueand- white, hinted on Twitter that it may well be a minor one.
“I spoke to Eli and he shard his game-plan with me,” Benayoun wrote. “I’m proud to be part of the squad. I appreciate and respect the coach’s attitude.
I’m happy to come to Israel and be part of the great effort and contribute as captain both on and off the field.”
The early indications are that Gutman plans to use Benayoun as no more than a substitute against Portugal. That could change, of course, by Friday, as Gutman continues to grapple with the Benayoun dilemma.
Benayoun is no longer capable of carrying the side on his scrawny shoulders the way he used to years ago, but to ignore the extraordinary gifts he still possesses would be foolish.
Anyway I look at it, Benayoun should not only be part of the squad, but he should also be in the starting lineup on Friday.
Finding the right combination to play along with Benayoun is not easy, but that is Gutman’s job.
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