Blue-and-white ready to roll in Azerbaijan

With tough qualification campaign set to kick off, Israel can’t take "easy" opener for granted.

Israeli national soccer team training 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israeli national soccer team training 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israel visits Azerbaijan in its first 2014 World Cup qualifier on Friday night in a match that was once a foregone conclusion but is now seen as a real threat to the national team’s hopes of reaching a first major tournament since 1970.
Israel has won all three of its previous meetings with Azerbaijan by a combined goal difference of 10-0.
However, the blue-and-white is taking nothing for granted ahead of Friday’s showdown considering its discouraging performances in its four friendly encounters since coach Eli Gutman took charge at the beginning the year and the steady improvement being made by its opponent.
There are question marks abound regarding Gutman’s team after it stuttered through its warm-up matches, losing three times before drawing 1-1 with Hungary in its final tune-up game last month.
To its credit, Israel faced worthy opponents rather than wasting its time against inferior sides.
Israel’s defeats in its three previous friendly matches came against the relatively strong Ukraine, Czech Republic and Germany, but far more worrying than the disappointing results were the blue-and-white’s desperately poor showings.
However, all we be forgotten should Israel start its campaign with a win in Baku on Friday ahead of next Tuesday’s match against Russia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
“We are entering the match full of confidence and are aware of the task on hand,” Gutman said on Thursday.
“We know what type of team we are facing and we expect the match to unfold according to our plan.” Israel also comes up against Portugal, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg in Group F, with only the group winner to automatically qualify for the tournament in Brazil, while the eight-best runners-up from the nine qualifying groups will play-off for the remaining four spots.
Azerbaijan recorded its best ever qualifying campaign under German coach Berti Vogts when it ended Group A of Euro 2012 qualification in fifth place out of six teams, picking up seven points thanks to a home win over Turkey and a draw with Belgium.
“We have all the information about Azerbaijan and we know we are facing a serious team,” Israel captain Yossi Benayoun said. “We can’t afford to underestimate them.”
Benayoun looks set to begin the match on the bench, but Gutman said he will only reveal his starting lineup on Friday.
“Yossi is the most important player in the squad and although I have been practicing a certain lineup in training you will only discover who will start before the match,” said Gutman, who added that the team feels safe after local authorities deployed a massive security operation to protect the Israel squad.
Dudu Aouate will start in goal once more, while Yuval Spungin and Yoav Ziv are set to begin the match on the right and left sides of the defense, respectively.
Gutman had a dilemma regarding who to start at the heart of the defense as Tal Ben-Haim is suspended, but he seems to have settled for the pairing of Eitan Tibi and new Vitesse Arnhem signing Dan Mori.
Gutman favorite Bibras Natcho will get the nod in the center of the field, with Gal Alberman likely to start alongside him in what will be his first national team appearance in almost two years following his impressive showings for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Maor Melikson and Maccabi Haifa’s in-form midfielder Hen Ezra are expected to attack from the flanks, with Tomer Hemed, who has already scored three goals this season for Mallorca in La Liga, and Itay Shechter, who has yet to make his Premier League debut for Swansea City, to start up front.
“Of course I want to play just like any other player, but I will be ready whenever I’m called upon,” Benayoun said.
“It is less important to me who starts. It is far more important that we pick up all three points.