Benayoun returns, Israel makes it back-to-back triumphs

Substitute Tal Ben Haim’s 59th-minute goal sealed the win over the Georgians.

Benayoun and Fernandez 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Benayoun and Fernandez 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israel’s participation in the 2012 European Championships is still anything but secured, but the national team took an important step towards qualification with a 1-0 win Tuesday night over Georgia at Bloomfield Stadium.
Substitute Tal Ben Haim’s 59th-minute goal sealed the win over the Georgians, who entered the game on a high, having shocked Croatia 1-0 with a last-minute winner in Tbilisi on Saturday.
“It’s a great result for us,” Ben Haim said after the match. “We kept up a fighting spirit, and we came back to life.”
The victory leaves Israel tied with Croatia for second in Group F with 10 points, though the blue-and-white has played one more game than the Croats and Greeks, who are in first with 11.
Tuesday night was doubly special for the Bloomfield crowd, as Chelsea midfielder Yossi Benayoun entered the game in the 71st minute, making his first appearance for any squad since he suffered an achilles injury against Newcastle in September.
But the result was perhaps most meaningful for Israel coach Luis Fernandez, who had declared six points from this two-game home swing an absolute necessity.
Even after Saturday’s dramatic 2-1 victory over Latvia, controversy continued to surround the Frenchman when defender Dekel Keinan was reported as having criticized the coach for not playing him Saturday.
But Keinan played all 90 minutes against the Georgians, and the win should guarantee Fernandez some respite at least until the squad’s next game, at Latvia on June 4, the same day that Greece faces Malta and Croatia hosts Georgia.
On Tuesday, both teams opened somewhat tentatively, feeling each other out for the first 10 minutes. But Israel appeared to grab control when it carved out three opportunities in quick succession.
Maor Buzaglo pioneered the first two, which occurred within a minute of each other.
In the 14th minute, the Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder displayed some flashy moves to create space for himself and fired a shot from just inside the area, but Georgian ‘keeper Nukri Revishvili was perfectly placed to snag the ball.
Israel won the ensuing header at midfield, and Buzaglo soon embarked on an impressive 25- meter run through the defense to the goal-line, but his cross was plucked out of the air by a diving Revishvili.
Only one minute after that, Bibras Natcho curved an impressive free kick onto the head of Rami Gershon, but the defenseman couldn’t deliver a strong enough header, and Revishvili punched it away.
Israeli captain Dudu Aouate remained fairly motionless in goal in the first half, and the Bloomfield fans were buzzing with optimism as the teams entered the locker rooms.
The hosts opened the second half lacking the tautness they used to dominate the first, and striker Otar Martsvaladze twice made Aouate sweat in the first seven minutes with speculative yet accurate attempts from long range.
But Israel took that punch and delivered a major blow in the 59th minute. Biram Kiyal spun beautifully away from two Georgians at midfield, and led Buzaglo with a through ball down the right side ahead of the scrambling defense.
The midfielder patiently plodded his way toward the middle of the penalty area as the defense collapsed around him, but the Georgians ignored a streaking Ben Haim, who had come on for Natcho only minutes earlier.
The Maccabi Petah Tikva striker took the pass from Buzaglo near the left edge of the box, and made no mistake slotting the ball past a diving Revishvili, sending the Israelis charging en masse towards a jubilant Fernandez on the sideline.
The final half-hour was played fairly evenly, though the Georgians had a phenomenal chance in the 71st minute.
Vladimir Dvalishvili lucked out when Aouate misplayed the ball, leaving the Maccabi Haifa forward alone just outside the area. But Dvalishvili, with Aouate charging at him, looped a shot that just barely sailed over the crossbar.
Both sides traded tepid chances over the next 20 minutes, as the visitors wasted three free kicks by sailing each of them over the crossbar, while Israel was intent just to maintain possession.
Aouate was uncharacteristically shaky at times Tuesday, but the Mallorca ’keeper still managed to escape with a clean sheet, helping restore his country’s hopes for its first-ever appearance in a European championship.