Israel takes care of business, beats Latvia 2-1

Benayoun scores in 2nd game back; nat’l team still in 3rd in after Greece, Croatia win.

israel soccer 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
israel soccer 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Israel won its third straight game in the Euro 2012 qualifying round on Saturday, and its first on foreign soil, defeating Latvia 2-1 at Riga’s Skonto Stadium.
The blue-and-white’s standing didn’t improve over the weekend, as Greece won over Malta 3-1 later Saturday and Croatia defeated Georgia 2-1 on Friday to stay in first and second place in Group F, respectively.
But the win ensured that the next slate of qualifiers – September 2 vs Greece and September 6 in Croatia – will arrive with Israel still in the hunt for a spot in next year’s tournament.
Luis Fernandez’s squad was not at its very best throughout Saturday’s match, but it was clearly the more talented and disciplined side on the field.
Yossi Benayoun scored his first goal for the national team since last September’s hat trick against Malta, having missed seven months due to a torn achilles, and a Tal Ben Haim penalty just before halftime had Israel feeling good about its chances early on.
Though the hosts would get one back through a penalty of their own, and though Israel never scored again, the second half also belonged to the visitors, and Fernandez can now turn his attention to those two mammoth matches in September’s first week.
Maor Buzaglo opened the game with an attempt that came within inches of becoming one of the competition’s most phenomenal goals.
A dreadful clearance by Latvia goalkeeper Andris Vanins allowed Buzaglo to gather the ball in near midfield.
The Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder saw that Vanins was out of position, and launched a 45-yard rocket that glanced off the right post and out of harm’s way.
The blue-and-white stepped up its energy after Buzaglo’s attempt, and saw several more opportunities – all of which culminated much closer to Vanins’s net, but none of which seriously threatened the Latvian – come its way over the next 10 minutes.
But Israel’s early efforts paid off in the 15th minute. Eran Zahavi’s shot from the corner of the box bounced off the defense and directly to Benayoun, who immediately slotted home from 15 yards out, handing Israel a welldeserved 1-0 lead.
Israel’s defense early on was as impressive as its ability to manufacture scoring chances, as the home side was bombarded by a flurry of aggressive yet precise sliding tackles. If those didn’t lead to a dispossession, then a blue-and-white leg would soon find its way into a passing lane.
The Latvians settled in more and more as the half progressed, but Dudu Aouate managed to keep the Israeli net clear.
Three minutes from halftime, a splitsecond lapse in judgment gifted Israel its second goal.
Defender Yuval Shpungin beat Artis Lazdins to the ball just inside Vanins’s box, and took a masterful fall when Lazdins nudged him, causing Irish referee Alan Kelly to sound his whistle, with Tal Ben Haim approaching the penalty spot.
It was a borderline penalty call, as Lazdins’s challenge wasn’t nearly tough enough to send even the scrawniest player to the ground.
But Ben Haim made sure Israel cashed in. The West Ham defender stutterstepped his way to the ball but smoothly slid it to the left of Vanins, who dove right, and Israel led 2-0.
There was still time for two more solid Latvian chances before halftime, but the Israeli defense cleared them both, and the visitors had to feel better about their efforts over the first 45 minutes when Kelly’s whistle blew.
Buzaglo’s playmaking was on display early in the second half, as he ended an immersive, calculated run by dropping the ball off to Benayoun in center of the field, but the Chelsea midfielder lost control as he approached the Latvian goal.
The luck that helped Israel score its second goal came back to bite it in the 61st minute, when the ball brushed Buzaglo’s shoulder in the area, and Kelly awarded Latvia a penalty of its own.
Aleksandr Cauna’s effort mirrored Ben Haim’s almost exactly, and the hosts had cut the defect in half.
Most of Latvia’s chances over the last 25 minutes resulted from long lobs over the blue-and-white defense, as pressing Israeli defenders and midfielders made life difficult for the Latvian offense on the ground.
Tomer Hemed nearly made it 3-1 with six minutes to play when his sliding header was smothered by Vanins mere inches from the goal line.
Latvia had a flurry of chances in stoppage time, as Aouate had to battle the sun and misplayed a corner that would have tied the game if not for Dekel Keinan’s well-positioned head.
But Fernandez’s boys held their hosts until the final whistle, keeping their hopes alive for a trip next year to what would be Israel’s first-ever European championship.