Int'l Soccer: Familiar foes for Israel in Euro draw

Benayoun cautious after blue-and-white drawn in Group F with Croatia and Greece.

Group F coaches and officials (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Group F coaches and officials
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Israel’s dreams of reaching a first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup were handed an unexpected boost on Sunday afternoon.
Despite only being a third seed following its abysmal display in 2010 World Cup qualification, the national team received a reasonable draw in Warsaw, placing in Group F of Euro 2012 qualification with Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Georgia and Malta.
Israel avoided the likes of Spain, Germany and England from the first seeding pot and Serbia, Sweden and Denmark from Pot 2.
But considering recent results against Croatia, Greece and Latvia, IFA chairman Avi Luzon would still do well to wait a while before booking the team’s tickets to the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine in two years time.
The national team is still managerless, with coach Dror Kashtan due to leave his post in the summer, and Luzon has been unsuccessful in finding a successor.
At least the players will know something of their opponents, and hope to do better this time around.
Israel faced Greece and Latvia in its recent World Cup qualifying group, picking up just two of a possible 12 points.
It also has bad memories from its recent encounters with Croatia, having lost to Slaven Bilic’s men both home and away in Euro 2008 qualification.
Georgia and Malta are clearly the weakest teams in the group and Israel will likely need to take the full 12 points off the minnows if it’s to have any chance of reaching the European Championships for a first time.
The nine winners and the runner-up with the best record against the top five sides in its group qualify directly for the final tournament, the last before the championship is expanded to 24 teams. The eight remaining runners-up go into playoff matches in November 2011 to decide the final four sides to join the hosts.
The qualifying matches will begin in September, with the order of the games to be determined in a meeting of the teams’ representatives in Greece on March 7.
“We know most of the teams from previous campaigns and we know it is going to be tough to qualify,” Israel captain Yossi Benayoun said.
“We need to focus on our performance, on what we need to improve to have any chance of qualifying.
“It is less important to speak about the difficulty of our group, because we saw in the last campaign that it makes no difference.”
Luzon, was not as cautious as his captain.
“This is a reasonable draw,” said Luzon, who famously declared after the 2010 World Cup qualifying draw that Israel should advance to the tournament in South Africa.
“However, the only thing that will determine if this is a good draw or not are the results during the campaign. We know three of the teams in the group very well and we’re hoping we can record improved results against them.”
Croatia has played in the last two European Championships and the past three World Cups. However, it will not be in South Africa this summer after only managing a third-place finish, behind England and Ukraine, in 2010 qualification.
Greece, on the other hand, will take part in the upcoming World Cup, and despite sticking to its a dull style of play, will once more be extremely tough to crack under the guidance of German coach Otto Rehhagel.
Georgia finished bottom of its World Cup qualifying group, failing to win a match. However, it has some promising talents and will be difficult to defeat in Tbilisi.
Malta didn’t even score a goal in its latest qualifying campaign and should pose no threat to Israel or any of the other top sides in the group.
“We’ve got a very good chance,” Bolton midfielder Tamir Cohen said. “This is the best draw we could have hoped for, but we are still facing some strong sides. I hope we can compensate the fans for the World Cup campaign.”