Russians visit suddenly desperate Israel

Blue-and-white can’t afford another early loss in its bid to qualify for World Cup.

Soccer 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soccer 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just four days after beginning its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Israel national team could see its dreams of playing in Brazil in two years time all but end should it fail to defeat Russia at National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Tuesday night.
The 1-1 draw in Baku against Azerbaijan on Friday was an unexpected early setback for the blue-and-white, which is hoping to finish among the top two in Group F, which also includes Portugal, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg.
Only the group winner will automatically qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, while the eight-best runners-up from the nine qualifying groups will play-off for the remaining four spots.
Israel’s chances of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 were considered to be extremely slim even before the start of the campaign, but they will be virtually non-existent if Eli Gutman’s men don’t beat Russia at home.
The blue-and-white is still looking for its first win under Gutman, losing three and drawing one of its four friendly matches before Friday’s stalemate in Azerbaijan.
Israel’s desperately poor play in those matches also gives little reason for optimism ahead of Tuesday, but Gutman is confident his team will display a significant improvement.
“I expect us to play better than we did against Azerbaijan, even though Russia is clearly a better team,” Gutman said on Monday. “Russia’s strength is in its midfield and we will play accordingly. I plan to play a 4-3-3 formation, with three holding midfielders and three attacking players. All of my decisions are professional ones and my only goal is that the team’s play will improve.”
Gutman is expected to make at least three changes to the lineup which could only manage a 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan.
Dudu Aouate will continue in goal, while Yuval Spungin and Yoav Ziv will start a second straight match on the right and left sides of the defense, respectively.
There will be a change in the center of the defense, with Tal Ben-Haim returning from suspension to replace Dan Mori and team-up with Eitan Tibi.
Captain Yossi Benayoun will return to the starting 11 after surprisingly being dropped from the team for the match against Azerbaijan, likely taking the place of Maor Melikson.
Gutman is leaning towards using a lineup with three defensive midfielders, meaning Bibras Natcho, who scored Israel’s goal in Baku, will be joined in the center of the field by debutant Maharan Radi and Almog Cohen, who looks set to get the nod ahead of Gal Alberman.
Maccabi Haifa’s Hen Ezra is expected to be Israel’s second attacking midfielder with Benayoun, while Itay Shechter is the favorite to start as the lone striker, although Gutman may eventually opt for Tomer Hemed.
“We should have beaten Azerbaijan, but we failed to do so and we need to cope with the criticism,” Shechter said.
“Benayoun is our Pillar of Fire and I’m sure he will put on a show in this match.I call on the fans to come to the match despite the disappointment from the draw with Azerbaijan. We are the only national team they have so they should come and cheer us on.”
Russia didn’t impress in its group opener against Northern Ireland on Friday, but it still claimed a 2-0 win and will be looking to avenge its 2-1 defeat to Israel when the teams last met in November 2007.
Russia replaced Dutch coach Dick Advocaat with former England coach Fabio Capello following the team’s group stage exit at Euro 2012 and the Italian’s goal will be to guide Russia back to the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
The Israel Football Association has handed out over 6,000 free tickets to soldiers and children in the hope that Ramat Gan Stadium will be at least half full, but Benayoun believes that those blue-and-white fans who do attend the match can help push the team to rebound from Friday’s result.
“I think every match is crucial,” said Benayoun. “Clearly we wanted to take all three points in Azerbaijan, but that didn’t happen and we now need to focus on Russia.
“We need to do everything to win this match and if we manage to do that we will be right back in contention.” Benayoun brushed aside any suggestion that he is under particular pressure after not starting against Azerbaijan.
“We are not machines and we also have some bad days,” said Benayoun.
“I’m not afraid of this match and I believe in our team. All that is left for us to do is to give our best and hope that is enough.”
On TV: Israel vs Russia (live on Channel 1 at 8 p.m.)