Israel heads for Riga in prime position

Optimistic yet wary blue-and-white still stinging from recent losses to Latvia.

Lior Rafaelov 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Lior Rafaelov 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It may have seemed all but impossible two months ago, but should Israel defeat Latvia in Riga on Saturday night, it would have a real chance of reaching Euro 2012.
The 2-1 victory over Latvia at Bloomfield Stadium on March 26 followed by the 1-0 home win over Georgia three days later catapulted the national team into third place in Group F with 10 points from six matches, just one point behind leader Greece, which has played one game fewer.
A third straight victory on Saturday would leave Israel with everything to play for entering September’s home encounter with the Greeks, but considering past experiences, everyone on the team is first and foremost focused on taking all three points in Riga.
Israel had to toil to claim a home victory over the Latvians just over two months ago, with Biram Kiyal netting the winner with his head in the 81st minute.
And no one on the team will soon forget the blows Latvia struck to the blueand- white’s 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.
After a promising start to the campaign, Dror Kashtan’s side took the lead in Riga via a Yossi Benayoun goal, only for Vladimirs Kolesnicenko to break Israel’s hearts with a last minute equalizer.
Latvia then handed Israel an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at National Stadium in Ramat Gan in the reverse fixture in September 2009 to officially end its hopes of reaching the World Cup, so it should be of little surprise that the blueand- white camp is especially wary ahead of Saturday.
“Everyone understands the importance of this match,” coach Luis Fernandez said. “We had to work very hard to beat Latvia at Bloomfield and the last time we played in Riga the match ended in a draw so we know we are facing a very tough mission.”
Fernandez once more has plenty of key players injured, with Biram Kiyal, Elyaniv Barda, Gili Vermut and Itai Shechter all to sit out on Saturday night.
But at least captain Benayoun is fit to return to the starting lineup after only playing a total of 19 minutes off the bench in Israel’s last two qualifiers.

“I’ve come back from a complicated injury,” said the 31-year-old Chelsea midfielder, who was out for six months with an Achilles injury. “But we are all aware of how crucial this match is.”
Latvia has only managed to pick up four points from its first five qualifiers, but coach Aleksandrs Starkovs hopes his side’s blend of youth and experience can lift it to victory after its poor start to Group F.
“We’re not in the best position,” Starkovs said. “We have shown improvement recently, but Israel will be buoyed by its recent results. Israel looks to be the stronger team on paper, but we will be aiming to win the match and anything is possible.”