Israel denied World Cup qualifying victory

A 93rd-minute equalizer by Portugal denied Israel victory, tying the score at 3-3 for the 2014 World Cup qualifier in Ramat Gan.

Israel, Portugal Football Match World Cup Qualifier 2014 (photo credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
Israel, Portugal Football Match World Cup Qualifier 2014
(photo credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
An air of dejection continued to hang over the Israel camp on Saturday evening as it returned to the training field a day after the 3-3 draw against Portugal in a 2014 World Cup qualifier at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The national team looked to be on course for its first victory over a real rival in qualification for a major tournament since the 20th century when Rami Gershon gave it a 3-1 lead in the 70th minute.
However, a 93rd-minute equalizer by Portugal’s Fabio Coentrao denied Israel one of its greatest ever victories, breaking blue-and-white hearts and handing the national team’s lingering hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1970 an almost fatal blow.
Israel remained in second place in the group, ahead of Portugal on goal difference, but Eli Gutman’s side still faces matches on the road against group powerhouses Russia and Portugal.
Only the group winner will automatically qualify for next year’s tournament in Brazil, while the eight-best runnersup from the nine qualifying groups will play-off for the remaining four spots.
“I’m very disappointed because we neutralized all their strengths,” said a frustrated Gutman. “Had we won the match it would have given us a real push in the qualifying campaign.
“I’m pleased that the team fought back after going behind, but I end the match with mixed emotions.”
Israel will fly to Belfast on Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier versus Northern Ireland.
The match between Northern Ireland and Russia scheduled for Friday was postponed to a yet to be determined date after heavy snow meant the encounter couldn’t be played in Belfast on Friday or Saturday.
Elyaniv Barda will join the national team in Belfast in place of Tomer Hemed, who is suspended after picking up a yellow card against Portugal.
“We know what we need to do to win in Belfast,” said Gutman. “The players will have to put the Portugal festival behind them. As painful as the result was, they will have to forget about it because we will be facing a tough opponent who will be making life difficult for us.”
Some fans hadn’t even found their seat when Bruno Alves gave Portugal an early lead on Friday.
A Miguel Veloso corner caught the national team napping and Alves rose highest to powerfully head the ball right above goalkeeper Dudu Aouate’s head after just 88 seconds.
It took the blue-and-white several minutes to regain their composure, but Israel equalized in the 24th minute after a swift team move.
Yuval Shpungin crossed from the right flank and Eden Ben-Basat cunningly let the ball pass through his legs and reach Hemed, who expertly turned in the box and blasted in his sixth goal in five qualifiers.
Unlike in the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Russia in October, Israel didn’t collapse after going behind so early in the encounter and completed a remarkable comeback by the break.
Hemed’s back-heel pass in the 40th minute was timed to perfection for the surging Ben-Basat, who scored for the third straight qualifier with a stunning finish into the top right corner.
Israel held on to its lead until the break, but only thanks to much maligned defender Tal Ben-Haim, who denied Helder Postiga a clear shot at goal with a seamless last-ditch tackle in stoppage time.
Portugal began applying pressure right from the start of the second half, but Israel fans were holding their heads in disbelief after Gershon headed the hosts into a two-goal advantage with 20 minutes to play.
However, Israel couldn’t avoid a tense finish, with the otherwise quiet Ronaldo slicing the defense two minutes later before laying the ball off for Postiga for an easy tally.
The hosts breathed a huge sigh of relief in the 90th minute when Coentrao’s header hit the crossbar, but the national team couldn’t hold on, with the defender scoring in the third minute of stoppage time after another mistake by Aouate.
Ronaldo may have done little on the pitch at Ramat Gam, but he still created an uproar after posting a picture of himself on his Facebook page on Thursday, writing, “Great morning in Israel with my colleagues.”
The post created a flurry of responses from anti-Israelis writing that it is Palestine, not Israel.
As of Saturday night, Ronaldo’s post had more than 327,000 likes and more than 11,000 shares. In the comment section, there was a heated political back-and-forth between Israelis and Arabs.