Portuguese pose tremendous test to Israel

Ronaldo & Co. land in the Holy Land for Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier vs blue-and-white.

ISRAEL COACH Eli Gutman 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
ISRAEL COACH Eli Gutman 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal arrived in Israel on Wednesday night as blue-and-white coach Eli Gutman continued to formulate his starting lineup for Friday’s vital 2014 World Cup qualifier in Ramat Gan.
The Portuguese squad landed at Ben- Gurion Airport nine hours after US President Barack Obama touched down in Israel, and went directly to Hilton Tel Aviv, where it will be based while in the country.
All the tickets for Friday’s match at National Stadium in Ramat Gan already sold out last week, with both teams in desperate need for all three points after an erratic start to their qualifying campaigns.
Both Israel and Portugal have picked up seven points from their first four qualifiers, with the blue-and-white sitting in second place in the group by virtue of its superior goal difference.
After defeating Luxembourg and Azerbaijan in its first two matches in Group F, Portugal lost 1-0 at Russia and drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland over five days in October.
Israel began its campaign with a 1-1 draw at Azerbaijan and was crushed 4- 0 by Russia before thrashing Luxembourg twice in October.
Israel coach Gutman is set to make several changes to the lineup which faced Luxembourg.
Eden Ben-Basat and Tomer Hemed look set to continue their fruitful partnership up front and Maor Melikson and Bibras Natcho are likely to start once more in the midfield. However, Tal Ben-Haim is expected to return to anchor the defense, despite playing just once for QPR since January, and Shiran Yeini is likely to play as a defensive midfielder with the specific role of keeping a close eye on Ronaldo.
Yeini has yet to even make his debut for Israel, but Gutman seems ready to put his faith in the Maccabi Tel Aviv all-around player.
“With the right tactic and with commitment we can stop Ronaldo,” said Ben-Basat. “We are certain that Portugal has weaknesses and we will have to make the most of them. The key will be to be patient. We will try and surprise them on the break.”
Ben-Basat is likely to come up against Real Madrid defender Pepe on Friday.
“I have never played in the World Cup and we all know how important this game in Israel is to achieving that goal,” Pepe said. “We look to control the game regardless of the opponent and we will have to be focused in Israel so that we can take all three points.”
Elsewhere in Group F, Russia coach Fabio Capello says Friday’s match against Northern Ireland is their most important remaining World Cup qualifier as he looks to extend their winning streak to five matches and move closer to 2014’s finals.
“A win in Belfast would take us a huge step towards the World Cup in Brazil,” said the former England manager, who replaced Dick Advocaat as Russia boss following the team’s poor showing at Euro 2012.
After they made a flying start to their Group F qualifying campaign by winning four matches on the trot without conceding a goal, the Russians lead both second place Israel and Portugal in third by five points.
Reuters contributed to this report.