Huge challenge for blue-and-white at home

Gutman has Israel believing it can pull off a shocker against Portgual in fifth World Cup qualifier.

Cristiano Ronaldo 370 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Cristiano Ronaldo 370
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel will have to reverse recent history if it’s to defeat Portugal in a crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Friday afternoon.
Blue-and-white coach Eli Gutman spoke of his squad’s confidence on Thursday ahead of the encounter against Cristiano Ronaldo and friends, but the national team hasn’t beaten a real rival for qualification for a major tournament since the 20th century.
Israel defeated Russia 2-1 in Euro 2008 qualifying when it no longer had a chance to progress, but its last win in a meaningful encounter over a superior opponent was the famous 5-0 thrashing of Austria in June 1999.
Gutman’s side was crushed 4-0 by Russia in Ramat Gan in its first home match in Group F in September, and while it resurrected its campaign by thrashing Luxembourg twice in October, the blue-and-white will have little chance of a top-two finish should it fail to defeat Portugal on Friday.
The Portuguese have struggled of late, defeating Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in their first two matches in Group F, but losing 1-0 at Russia and drawing 1-1 at home with Northern Ireland over five days in October.
“I feel that the players are confident and composed and know exactly what they are up against,” a calm Gutman said on Thursday. “I’m really enjoying the moment, but I’m aware that ultimately we will be judged by the result we record.”
All in all, Portugal has failed to win its last four matches, suffering a humbling 3-2 defeat in a friendly against Ecuador in Guimaraes in February.
Portugal is in dire need of Ronaldo’s heroics as it lags third in the group, behind Israel on goal difference and five points adrift of group leader Russia.
Ronaldo netted the goal that sent Real Madrid through to the last eight of the Champions League against Manchester United and grabbed a double at Celta Vigo before finding the back of the net once more against RCD Mallorca this past Saturday to take his league tally for the season to 27 goals in 27 matches.
The superstar has scored 50 goals in 60 matches in all competitions for Real Madrid and Portugal this season, but Gutman remains just as wary of the other 10 Portuguese players who will take the field alongside Ronaldo on Friday.
“Portugal isn’t just about Ronaldo,” said Gutman of Paulo Bento’s squad, which also includes the likes of Madrid stars Fabio Coentrao and Pepe, as well as Raul Meireles, Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida. “We will have to play as a cohesive unit if we are to deny them.”
Gutman’s lineup for Friday is set to consist of Dudu Aouate in goal, Yuval Spungin, Rami Gershon, Eitan Tibi and Tal Ben-Haim on defense, with Shiran Yeini to make his debut for the national team as a defensive midfielder with the specific role of keeping a close eye on Ronaldo.
Bibras Natcho, Eran Zahavi and Maor Melikson are expected to play in the midfield, while Eden Ben-Basat and Tomer Hemed are likely to be given the opportunity to continue their fruitful partnership up front, with Ben-Basat to begin the match on the wing.
Captain Yossi Benayoun looks set to start the encounter on the bench, but remains upbeat regarding the national team’s chances on Friday.
“When I first joined the team in 1998 no one promised me that I would always be in the starting lineup and I’m here for the national team whether I play for a minute or 90 minutes,” said Benayoun, who is only four appearances shy of equaling Arik Benado’s Israel record of 94 caps and is also ranked second all-time with his 24 goals for the blue-and-white.
“We are facing an excellent team which will be entering the match as a firm favorite. However, we are trying to focus on our own play and we are hoping that will be prove to be enough to record a positive result.”