Euro qualifiers: Three points or bust for Israel

National soccer team in must-win situation against Estonia.

Israel vs England 298.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel vs England 298.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
After failing to claim a victory against the top three sides in Group E in its last three qualifiers, Israel needs a win against Estonia on Wednesday night to keep its slim hopes of advancing to Euro 2008 alive. Israel hosts the Baltic team at National Stadium in Ramat Gan and for the first time since its match against Andorra more than six months ago, will be entering a qualifier as a favorite. Estonia is one of only two teams in the European championship qualifying round to have lost all its matches without even scoring a single goal. However, unlike the Faroe Islands, which on average loses its matches 4-0, Estonia's biggest defeat of the campaign was a 2-0 loss to Russia. Israel would be foolish to underestimate its opponent on Wednesday after barley grinding out a victory in their first meeting of the campaign in September 2006. The national team had to endure a tense finish before recording a 1-0 victory in Tallinn in its first Euro 2008 qualifier, as the Estonians lay siege to the Israeli goal in the final minutes of the match. Despite its poor record, Estonia has conceded the same amount of goals as Israel in its qualifiers to date. Nevertheless, coach Dror Kashtan knows that with all due respect to the visitors, his team must win on Wednesday. "Any result other than a victory will be a disappointment," said Kashtan, who has guided the national team to eight points in its first five qualifiers. "We are the favorites and we're playing a team which is, on paper, weaker than us. However, this can be a danger because people tend to underestimate inferior opponents." Kashtan is expected to make two changes to the lineup that drew 0-0 with England at the same venue Saturday, with Roberto Colautti and Idan Tal returning from suspension and replacing Pini Balili and Arik Benado, respectively, in the starting 11. "Colautti and Tal are both important players and will help us a lot," captain Yossi Benayoun commented. "Colautti is a proven goal-scorer and Tal works extremely hard throughout the 90 minutes." Benayoun, who has struggled with his form in the campaign so far, realizes, just like Kashtan, that only victory will allow the team to continue dreaming of qualification. "We need these three points," he said. "We must take them. "We're ready and we know what to expect. The players are all aware of the importance of the match. We will have to work much harder than we did in the match against England to defeat Estonia." Israel will face a depleted Estonian defense as Enar Jaager and Raio Piiroja are missing due to injury. The team will also be without defender Andrei Stepanov, who is suspended after picking up a yellow card in his side's qualifier against Russia on Saturday. Nevertheless, Estonian coach Jelle Goes is still hoping his side can finish Wednesday's match with a positive result. "We're facing an offensive side with excellent attacking players," he said. "We will have to be organized in defense and despite missing several players, we're hoping to record a good result." The star of the Estonian side is Andres Oper, who plays for Dutch side Roda JC, and has scored 32 goals in 102 appearances for his national team. Another notable name on the squad is goalkeeper Mart Poom. The 35 year old played in the past for English sides Derby County and Sunderland and is currently part of Arsenal's squad. However, Poom has made just a single appearance for the English Premier League giants in the last two years. "I'm optimistic," declared Goes, who is Dutch. "I think we will make life difficult for them. In our first meeting with Israel, we had nine scoring opportunities and they only had three. However, they scored and we didn't. I'm positive and hopeful. We need to stay calm and play with confidence."