Group leaders Israel, Croatia set to meet

Fernandez dealing with injuries; squad hopes to avenge losses from 4 years ago.

luis fernandez 311 (photo credit: Jeremy Last)
luis fernandez 311
(photo credit: Jeremy Last)
Israel’s squad has been ravaged with injuries, and even when at full strength it has yet to play any better than mediocre in its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. However, national team coach Luis Fernandez still believes the blueand- white can claim all three points against Croatia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Saturday night and take a significant step towards qualification for the European Championships.
Israel and Croatia are tied at the top of Group F with four points apiece, but while the Croats have beaten Latvia on the road and drawn with Greece, the blue-and-white toiled to a 3-1 home victory over the minnows from Malta before recording an uninspiring 0-0 draw at Georgia.
Fernandez has received his fair share of criticism since taking charge of the team, most notably for his strange player selection and mystifying lineups.
However, a total of four points from the qualifiers against Croatia and Greece in Athens next Tuesday will change all of that and put Israel in a commanding position to challenge for a place in Euro 2012.
“We have a lot of willpower and motivation and I like the attitude of the players ahead of this match,” Fernandez said.
“We are playing against one of the best teams in Europe. We cannot afford to just defend. The best form of defense is attack.”
Israel’s undoubted star, Yossi Benayoun, was ruled out of the next two qualifiers after being diagnosed with a torn Achilles’ tendon, which could sideline him for up to six months.
“I’m dealing with all kinds of injury problems, but I trust the squad we have,” Fernandez said.
Celtic midfielder Biram Kiyal never even made the trip to Israel because of his stomach injury, while Maccabi Haifa’s Lior Rafaelov and Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Eran Zehavi are also both doubtful for the match.
However, goalkeeper Dudu Aouate – who will captain the side in Benayoun’s absence – is optimistic Israel can still get the better of Croatia, even though the Croats have had Israel’s number as of late.
The blue-and-white has lost lost five times out of its last six matches against the Croatians, avoiding defeat only in February 2005 when the teams drew 3-3 in a friendly match in Jerusalem.
“We are facing a tough match, but we will study the Croatians and we will be ready,” the RCD Mallorca ’keeper said. “This is one of the more important matches of our campaign and of course we will enter it believing we can win. Croatia is a better team than Israel and it is going to be a difficult encounter, but I believe that in front of our fans we can win.”
Croatia, who beat Israel 4-3 at Ramat Gan and 1-0 in Zagreb in Euro 2008 qualifying, will also need to overcome several absentees, with coach Slaven Bilic to be without the suspended Darijo Srna and injured forwards Mladen Petric and Nikica Jelavic.
However, Bilic has still got the likes of Ivica Olic, Eduardo Da Silva and Mario Mandzukic to choose from up front, with his midfield also including the likes of Tottenham’s Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar.
“We have tracked Israel for some time and we know that it is a different team without Benayoun,” Bilic said. “We are also without several players, but I think we have a good chance of beating Israel.”
Fernandez still has several dilemmas regarding his starting 11 on Saturday, and some changes are expected from the lineups he fielded in the first two qualifiers.
Tal Ben-Haim, who left the team on Thursday afternoon for 24 hours for his son’s Brit in London, will team up in the center of defense with Blackpool’s Dekel Keinan, but Fernandez has yet to reveal if he will play with five players in the back rather than four.
Bibras Natcho looks set to take Kiyal’s place in the midfield, playing alongside Almog Cohen, while Gili Vermut is the favorite to replace Benayoun and make his first official start under Fernandez.
The Frenchman has also yet to disclose if he will be employing one forward rather than two, although it seems more likely he will eventually opt to play Itai Shechter alongside Elyaniv Barda.
“I accept that I will come under criticism, but before the match everyone should be supporting the team. After the match there is time to criticize,” Fernandez said. “I see a lot of commitment and passion among the players and we will do everything we can to beat Croatia.”