The Last Word: Don't get your hopes up this time

The question mark over Yossi Benayoun's participation in Saturday's match against Greece has disturbed the squad's preparations.

yossi benayoun 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
yossi benayoun 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Will he play? Won't he play? The question mark over Yossi Benayoun's participation in Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Greece has generated so much media interest over here that on Wednesday goalkeeper Dudu Aouate claimed in the daily press conference that it was beginning to disturb the Israel squad's preparations. Perhaps Aouate's concerns were well-founded, but instead of worrying about the Israeli press's obsession with the Liverpool midfielder's hamstring, he and the rest of his teammates should be thankful that it has deflected attention from the rest of the players. This isn't because it has allowed them to train in relative quiet, but because it has ensured that the journalists haven't had the time or column inches to analyze the real situation at hand - that this squad is mediocre at best, poor at worst, and is unlikely to get more than a single point out of the two games against Greece. The Benayoun situation is also lucky for coach Dror Kashtan, who now has a ready-made excuse if Israel fails to impress on Saturday in Ramat Gan and on Wednesday in the return game in Crete. If Benayoun plays, Kashtan can say he insisted on taking part but wasn't fit enough. And if Benayoun stays on the bench, the coach can lament his team's bad luck and stress that it would have been a different story if Benayoun had played. Unfortunately this is not quite true. Even with Captain Fantastic, the current crop of players would have had a difficult task to avoid losing at least one of the games. Benayoun has had an amazing transformation at Liverpool in recent months, with his goal in the 1-0 Champions League victory at Real Madrid arguably the pinaccle of his career so far. However, he also has a tendency to underperform for the national team, especially with all the pressure on his shoulders. When Israel played Ireland and France within four days at Ramat Gan in March 2005 the entire crowd was given free Israel t-shirts with number 15, Benayoun's shirt number, on the back. But when it came to the game, the then-Racing Santander player was practically anonymous. Now 27-years-old, Benayoun has clearly matured and improved, but mysteriously not on the international scene, and the rest of the squad hasn't even kept up. The problems start at the back. While Sunderland's Tal Ben-Haim can be relied on to perform, the rest of the defense is inexperienced and unrealiable. If, as expected, Dekel Keinan plays alongside Ben-Haim and has another of his typical lapses in concentration, it could be disastrous for an Israel team facing the ominous Greek front line of Fanis Gekas and Angelos Charisteas. It is also expected that former Betar Jerusalem defender Yoav Ziv will play at left back. This would be a mistake. Even though Ziv has played well for Lokeren since making the move to Belgium in January, Maccabi Netanya's Dedi Ben-Dayan is much more accomplished. The midfield poses real cause for concern, and the expected lineup highlights how Kashtan believes the Israeli league is such bad quality that he would prefer to use someone like Tamir Cohen who has not played a minute for Bolton all season rather than David Revivo who has starred at Ashdod. The one redeeming factor is the front line. Omer Golan and Elyaniv Barda are on fire at their clubs in Belgium and if they combine to score two, as they did in the first half against the Ivory Coast in October, just maybe Israel has a chance of getting something out of this campaign.