Kashtan's squad takes on Northern Ireland tonight in final warm-up ahead of qualifiers.
By ALLON SINAI
Israel's players were in a positive mood on Tuesday as they completed their final preparations for the clash with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in Belfast on Wednesday, the team's final warm-up match ahead of next month's 2010 World Cup qualifiers against Latvia and Luxembourg.
The national team's hopes of reaching a first World Cup in 40 years suffered a fatal blow earlier this year when it only managed to collect a single point from two qualifiers against Greece.
Israel is currently fourth in Group 2 with nine points from six games, trailing Greece, Switzerland and Latvia.
However, the Israel Football Association still decided to hold a three-day training camp in England over the weekend before leaving for Belfast on Monday ahead of the final tune-up match for the qualifiers against Latvia (September 5) and Luxembourg (September 9) at National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
Israel's foreign based players only joined the squad in Belfast on Monday and defender Yoav Ziv, who plays for Belgian club Lokeren, was delighted to meet up with his international teammates.
"It feels good to see everyone after so long apart," Ziv said.
"Northern Ireland is in second position in a tough qualifying group, which includes, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, so obviously this is a good team. We are here to prepare for the matches against Latvia and Luxembourg, which we need to win to maintain any chance of advancing."
Northern Ireland is currently second in Group 3 with 13 points from seven matches, trailing Slovakia by two points and three points in front of Poland, which has one match in hand.
Apart from a couple of players, the entire Northern Irish squad plays in the top English and Scottish flights, with Manchester United defender Jonny Evans and Sunderland striker David Healy the side's biggest stars.
"Generally friendly matches are considered a waste of time, but this one is very important for Northern Ireland because it is the last match before two crucial qualifiers," Steven Bacom, sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph, told The Jerusalem Post.
"The management and players are treating it very seriously. They want to win and get some momentum going into the matches against Poland and Slovakia."
Israel will be without Ben Sahar on Wednesday, with the Espanyol striker remaining behind in England after showing flu symptoms. Sahar was immediately given a room of his own and was kept apart from his teammates, although Israel Doctor Mark Rosnovsky believes he is not suffering from swine flu.
"We took normal precautionary steps," said Rosnovsky of the the striker who returned to Spain on Tuesday. "It seems to be flu, but does not seem to be swine flu."
One of coach Dror Kashtan's main worries ahead of the team's next qualifier against Latvia is the absence of the suspended Tal Ben-Haim.
At the moment, Lokeren's Avi Strul seems to be the likely replacement for Ben-Haim and Kashtan is expected to play Strul alongside Maccabi Haifa's Dekel Keinan for at least part of Wednesday's match.
"Everyone in the squad is focused on keeping alive our dream of reaching the World Cup," said Keinan.
"We can't underestimate Northern Ireland, especially as we are playing on the road.
"I hope that this will be a good warm-up match and that we will make the most of the training camp and this friendly encounter ahead of September's qualifiers."
Jeremy Last contributed to this report.
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