Israel fights, but falls 2-1 to Croatia

Kranjcar’s first-half goals pace visitors; Israel in 4th with Greece looming

Fernandez 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Fernandez 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel’s dreams of reaching Euro 2012 suffered a significant blow on Saturday night after a 2-1 loss to Croatia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The national team entered the match tied with Croatia at the top of Group F with four points, but its mediocre performances against Malta and Georgia in its first two qualifiers raised plenty of reasons for concern, and Luis Fernandez’s men were simply not good enough on Saturday.
The Croats were far from brilliant, but they came to Ramat Gan with a meticulous game plan and executed it well.
The blue-and-white got the match off to a vibrant start and reached a couple of opportunities. However, the visitors were content on sitting back and hitting the hosts on the break, and unlike Israel, they made the most of their chances.
A Niko Kranjcar penalty in the 36th minute gave Croatia the all-crucial breakthrough and five minutes later the Tottenham midfielder doubled the visitors’ lead to all but end Israel’s hopes before the break.
Itai Shechter’s goal in the 81st minute ensured an exciting final few minutes, but Israel never came close to equalizing and taking a point it didn’t deserve.
“This is very disappointing,” said Israel goalkeeper Dudu Aouate, who wore the captain’s armband in the absence of the injured Yossi Benayoun. “We played well until we conceded the first goal, and the second goal broke our spirit. We had some good minutes, but we are disappointed.
We will now have to win on the road.”
Next up for Israel is a road match in Greece on Tuesday night. A victory in Athens would give the national team renewed hope of qualifying for a first major tournament since 1970, but a far more likely defeat would virtually finish the blue-and-white’s hopes of reaching Euro 2012.
The hosts got off to a bright start on Saturday, registering their first chance after just 39 seconds.
Almog Cohen stole the ball at the center of the field and sent through Shechter, whose clever shot from outside the box was tipped over the crossbar by ’keeper Vedran Runje.
Israel was pressuring Croatia across the field, but the visitors broke down the blue-andwhite’s formation with short passes and it wasn’t long before the Croats threatened Aouate’s goal.
Israel had the woodwork to thank in the seventh minute after Ivan Rakitic’s shot from 20 meters out left Aouate stunned.
Despite Rakitic’s close call, Israel had the better of the early proceedings and it had its chances to take the lead.
In the 13th minute, a superb solo effort by Shechter ended with the Hapoel Tel Aviv striker having his attempt saved by Runje. Yoav Ziv squandered an excellent opportunity just one minute later when he only had the ’keeper to beat, but shot straight at the RC Lens stopper.
Israel proved the Croatia defense had its vulnerabilities, but it didn’t convert its chances and it would pay dearly.
The Croats began to dominate the possession as the match progressed and it was only a matter of time until Aouate was tested.
Kranjcar was causing most of the trouble and he would be the one to get the opener.
Referee Wolfgang Stark spotted Dekel Keinan pulling down Josip Simunic in the box and Kranjcer stepped up to smash Croatia into the lead nine minutes from the break.
Five minutes later, the match was as good as over.
A nice team move ended with Luka Modric sliding the ball through to Kranjcer, who subsequently slotted the ball past Aouate to give Croatia a halftime lead it was never going to relinquish.
Shechter gave the hosts some hope when he clinically finished a nice solo effort to bring Israel within a goal, but it was too little too late and the blue-and-white dropped to a defeat which seriously complicates its situation in Group F.