Israel hopes to stay hot vs Northern Ireland

Gutman & Co. remain focused as Belfast’s cold weather calls Tuesday’s qualifier into doubt.

Israel soccer team 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel soccer team 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the frustrating draw against Portugal still lingering in everyone’s mind, the Israel squad arrived to freezing conditions in Belfast on Sunday evening, hoping that Tuesday’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland will be able to go ahead as planned.
Northern Ireland’s match with Russia, scheduled for Friday in Belfast, couldn’t be played on Friday or Saturday due to snow and ice in Windsor Park and will likely only take place in the summer.
The temperature is expected to drop to -1 Celsius at the time of the blue-and- white’s encounter on Tuesday night and the hosts are crossing their fingers that the pitch will be deemed playable.
The Irish Football Association had issued an appeal for fans to come to the ground with shovels to help clear snow on Saturday, but it was to no avail, with Norwegian referee Tom Hagen and the FIFA match delegates deciding to cancel the encounter with Russia.
Windsor Park lacks under soil heating, but Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill claimed that the “freak weather” was responsible for the postponement of Friday’s match.
“We experienced freak weather which would have been challenging for any association to get the game on,” he said. “At the end of the day there are more modern stadia that could maybe deal with it but it’s the first time in history it has happened in Northern Ireland, so it’s not something we haven’t managed well, or have mis-managed over time.”
Due to the postponement of the Russia match, both Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird will be unable to play against Israel due to suspensions.
The core of the Northern Ireland squad is built around players from clubs in England’s lower divisions, with several exceptions, most notably Manchester United defender Jonny Evans.
Northern Ireland has yet to win in Group F, but has also only lost once in four qualifiers. O’Neill’s team suffered a 2-0 defeat at Russia in its group opener, but has since recorded three straight 1-1 draws, disappointingly being held by Luxembourg and Azerbaijan at home, but picking up an admirable point in Portugal.
Northern Ireland could also only manage a 0-0 draw with Malta in its most recent friendly contest in February and has only won once in its past 21 matches in all competitions.
Nevertheless, Israel coach Eli Gutman told his players that the encounter in Belfast will be even tougher than the game against Portugal.
“The most important thing is that we maintain our composure,” Gutman told his squad. “We are facing a strong team that also drew with Portugal.”
Gutman went on to tell his players that he believes the national team will advance to the playoffs from second place in the group should it beat Northern Ireland, despite still having to face both the Portuguese and group leader Russia on the road.
Gutman will make at least one change from the 3-3 draw in Ramat Gan on Friday, with Tomer Hemed, who scored his sixth goal of the campaign against Portugal, missing out on the trip to Belfast after picking up a yellow card, being replaced in the squad by Elyaniv Barda.
The early indications are that Gutman will likely replace Hemed in the lineup with a midfielder, although the coach could eventually opt for striker Itay Shechter rather than the likes of Yossi Benayoun or Lior Rafaelov.
Rubin Kazan midfielder Bibras Natcho, who is set to start for Israel once more, is well accustomed to playing in freezing conditions having played in the Russian league since 2010.
“Sometimes when it’s cold the players are actually more comfortable,” said Natcho. “Regardless, we aren’t going there to have a good time. We were disappointed with the draw against Portugal, but everyone would have been happy with a draw before the match.”