Crucial game for blue-and-white in Athens

After home defeat to Croats, Israel’s chances fading; powerhouse nations cruising in qualifying.

LIOR REFAELOV (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Any realistic hope Israel still has of reaching Euro 2012 will end on Tuesday night should the national team fail to defeat Greece in Athens.
After suffering its first loss of the campaign on Saturday night at home, falling 2-1 to Croatia in Ramat Gan, the blueand- white enters its fourth Group F encounter knowing only a victory will get the team back in the hunt for a coveted top-two finish.
However, Israel has yet to record even a single convincing performance under the guidance of coach Luis Fernandez, and it will be without two of its most important players in Greece.
Besides injured captain Yossi Benayoun, the side will be without defensive anchor Tal Ben-Haim, who is unavailable after picking up his second yellow card of the campaign against Croatia.
Nevertheless, ’keeper Dudu Aouate believes the national team is more than capable of returning from Athens with all three points.
“It is a disgrace that people are already calling for Fernandez to be sacked,” Aouate said.
“He should be given a chance; the campaign isn’t over yet.
I’m confident we can still achieve some good results.
“Despite the tough loss to Croatia, we are entering this match with our heads held high. We didn’t play so badly on Saturday night and we have every chance of beating Greece.”
After claiming its first win of the campaign on Friday, beating Latvia 1-0, Greece coach Fernando Santos was very optimistic on Monday of his team making it two triumphs in a row against Israel.
“Israel will try to avoid conceding goals, but I am convinced we will win.”
Greece and Israel have faced off against each other on 13 previous occasions, with the Greeks having a decisive headto- head advantage, having won six and lost only two, while drawing five times.
In the nations’ most recent meeting, in a World Cup qualifier in 2009, Greece claimed a 2-1 victory. Israel’s only conquest in six trips to Greece was a 1-0 friendly success in Patras in September 1976.
In the other Group F contest, Latvia hosts Georgia.
Elsewhere among the 23 Euro 2012 qualifiers being played on Tuesday night, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are among the sides looking to continue perfect starts to their campaigns.
The trio top their groups, and Spain is progressing so serenely that its latest opponent, Scotland, has already acknowledged that it is playing only for second place and a playoff spot.
Scotland has two points fewer than Spain ahead of its meeting with the world and European champion in Glasgow but has played one more game.
Germany is at Kazakhstan and the Netherlands host Sweden, which has won both of its games so far.
England hosts surprise Group G leader Montenegro, while Italy welcomes Serbia.
Spain tops Group I with six points after beating Lithuania 3-1 in Friday’s qualifying round but did not score until the second half and even then conceded an equalizer before prevailing.
Also in Group I, the Czech Republic aims to follow Friday’s 1-0 win over Scotland with victory at lowly Liechtenstein.
Germany beat Turkey, supposedly its closest Group A rival, 3-0 on Friday and should have little problem obtaining a fourth straight competitive win at Kazakhstan. Any slip-up could give second-place Austria the chance to close a threepoint gap when it meets Belgium in Brussels.
The Netherlands’ game against Sweden is likely to be its hardest so far in Group E.
The World Cup runner-up has won its three games by a combined margin of 8-1, but Sweden has gone one better – winning its two matches by a total of 8-0.
Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic and forward Johan Elmander both missed training on Friday, when Sweden was one of the few teams not to play – but coach Erik Hamren said they were just taking “precautionary measures” and the pair trained on Saturday.
England’s squad was depleted by the withdrawal because of injury of winger Aaron Lennon and defender Phil Jagielka, but coach Fabio Capello is hoping to have Wayne Rooney fit after an ankle injury ruled him out of Manchester United’s past two games and threatened his participation.
England has two wins from two games but its rest on Friday allowed Montenegro to pull three points clear with a 1- 0 victory over Switzerland in Podgorica.
Switzerland is last in the fiveteam group but coach Ottmar Hitzfeld insists all is not lost ahead of Wales’ visit on Tuesday – another team that has lost its opening two matches in Group G.
“The important thing is to keep calm,” Hitzfeld said. “If we win our three matches at home and if we take some points in Cardiff and Sofia against Bulgaria then we can come back.”
The final tournament of the 14th UEFA Euro championships will be held in Poland and Ukraine in June-July 2012, with 16 national teams competing in a total of 31 matches to be crowned European champion.