Euro qualifier: National squad braces for Croatia

Israel must produce a solid performance on Wednesday if it's to get all 3 points against Croatia.

national team 298.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
national team 298.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
In his first day as coach of the Israel national team, Dror Kashtan announced that anything other than qualification for Euro 2008 would be a failure. Wednesday night, Kashtan and his men face Croatia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan in a match that could make or break their European Championship aspirations. Israel defeated Estonia and Andorra and drew with Russia in Moscow in its first three qualifiers. However, those positive results were achieved in an unconvincing fashion and the side must produce a solid performance on Wednesday if it's to get all three points against Croatia. "My objective is to win every match," Kashtan said at a press conference Tuesday. "The more we train together, the better we get. The team has a responsibility to the country, the crowd and the millions watching at home." The Croats are tied with Israel on seven points at the top of Group E and have been the most impressive team in the qualifiers to date. Croatia defeated England 2-0 in its last group match and has yet to concede a single goal in its three games. "On paper, the Croats are better than us," Israel captain Yossi Benayoun said. "They are solid at the back and have excellent players with a lot more experience. We will have to play beyond our best in order to win." Benayoun suffered a partial ligament tear in his knee in West Ham United's 1-0 loss to Middlesbrough on Saturday, but insisted he will be ready to play Wednesday. "Benayoun has a slight tear in his knee ligaments, but he has completed two full training sessions and he will play," Kashtan said. Israel is unbeaten in its last 13 European Championship and World Cup qualifying matches and hasn't lost an official game at Ramat Gan in seven years. However, in the same span of time the team has only beaten inferior sides at home and has only managed draws against sides on the same caliber as Croatia. Croatia arrived in Israel Tuesday evening without three of its regulars. Midfielder Milan Rapaic of Standard Liege and Werder Bremen striker Ivan Klasnic had not even joined the team in training because of their injuries and had no chance of being fit in time to play Wednesday. First-choice goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was ruled out Tuesday with an stomach virus and will be replaced by Besiktas goalkeeper Vedran Runje. Coach Slaven Bilic has also called up uncapped Parma forward Igor Budan to substitute for his injured attacking players. "A victory in Tel Aviv would be perfect for us," said Bilic. "I believe my players will display their best and we'll do all we can to cause a severe headache for the Israeli side on Wednesday night." Bilic boasts an evenly balanced side that plays better than the sum of its parts. Dario Simic of AC Milan, Robert Kovac of Juventus and Niko Kranjcar of Portsmouth are three of the team's more recognized faces and will all likely feature against Israel. Kashtan knows the Croatians are the stronger team, but is not letting the situation dishearten him. "No team's perfect," he said. "We need to be prepared for the way they will defend against us. It's true that their second goalkeeper will play, but if he's their substitute 'keeper than he must be excellent." Goalkeeper Dudu Awat will retain his place in goal for Israel and was cautiously optimistic on Wednesday. "Croatia is the best side in the group and they will be coming in with a lot of confidence," he said. "I always play to win and I'm not thinking of a draw. They are very gifted physically and technically, but we have our own good attributes and we can beat them." AP contributed to this report. On TV: Israel vs Croatia (live at 19:00 on Channel 1).