Israel suffers crushing setback in Greece

Blue-and-white drops second 2-1 qualifier this week to plummet in group standings.

israel greece 311 (photo credit: AP)
israel greece 311
(photo credit: AP)
Israel’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012 are all but finished after a 2-1 defeat to Greece at Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus, near Athens, on Tuesday night.
The loss leaves Israel tied for fourth place in Group F with six qualifiers remaining – making it extremely unlikely for the blue-and-white to secure a berth to its first European Championships.
Israel played perhaps its best game under coach Luis Fernandez, who was under immense pressure from the national media – injured striker Yossi Benayoun had to defend him in a radio interview before the game – following a 2-1 home loss to Croatia on Saturday night.
The visitors had chances throughout the match in Greece, but the scoreboard signaled what could be a tumultuous few months for Fernandez before Israel’s next series of qualifiers in mid-March.
Fernandez switched to a 4-4- 2 formation and made five changes to the starting lineup for Tuesday night, the most successful of which was the insertion of Maccabi Haifa forward Lior Refaelov, who concocted a number of chances for the visitors.
Israel played confidently at the start and got its first chance in the seventh minute when Itai Shechter tracked down a long ball into the area and set up Refaelov from 15 meters, but his shot slid past the right post.
Fernandez called for an aggressive back line for much of the first half, resulting in an Israel-dominated midfield as well as a number of offside calls on the Greeks.
The strategy backfired in the 22nd minute, however, when Pantelis Kafes unleashed a perfect lead pass for striker Dimitris Salpingidis, who had to lock arms with Dekel Keinan to hold off him off as they chased down the ball.
Salpingidis outmuscled the Blackpool defender and reached the ball at the edge of the box, flicking it over an exasperated Aouate, who broke for the ball far too late, and Greece led 1-0.
Salpingidis was the most dangerous man on the field for the rest of the half, and had several similar long lead passes come his way. But Aouate and the Israeli defense managed to pressure him into either losing possession or weak attempts.
Shechter set up Israel’s next opportunity when some clever dribbling led to a free kick from 20 meters with five minutes left in the half, but Refaelov’s shot whistled over the crossbar.
Shechter received a yellow card two minutes later for trying to draw a penalty when he put on a subpar acting job in Greek ’keeper Michalis Sifakis’s box, and will miss the next qualifier after back-to-back booking.
Israel finally broke through in the 59th minute when Refaelov won the ball on the left side and left it for Roberto Colautti at the edge of the box near the baseline.
The Maccabi Tel Aviv forward unleashed a cross that passed through the legs of Avraam Papadopoulos and found a sliding Shechter, who arrived at the ball with Nikos Spyropoulos.

The two players collided simultaneously with the ball, which found its way just inside the left post. Spyropoulos was credited with an own-goal, and Israel found a new source of energy and urgency after leveling the score.
Israel’s jubilation was shortlived, however. Salpingidis found a wide open space on the left wing only three minutes later, and was taken down by Aouate when the ’keeper dove to knock the ball away from the box.
Referee Martin Hansson had no choice but to award the hosts a penalty, and captain Giorgos Karagounis found the bottom left corner to break the tie.
Refaelov set up the visitors again only two minutes later, holding off a string of defenders and finding Colautti with a cross that gave the Maccabi Tel Aviv striker a wide angle. But his shot rang against the post, and the hosts exhaled deeply.
Aouate was on his toes in the 74th when he saved a rocket from Salpingidis and then had to punch away a header pass from Dani Bondarv that drifted too close to the goal.
Refaelov came tantalizingly close to getting Israel a point in the standings as the game entered extra time, impressively creating some space for himself in the left side of the box.
But, as it had for the 24-yearold so many times throughout the evening, his shot sailed just outside of the woodwork.
Greece then had no more issues holding off their opponents for the final few minutes, ensuring an empty-handed return across the Mediterranean for the blue-and-white.