The Last Word: Israel already ahead in psychological battle

With only a few days to go until the England vs. Israel Euro '08 qualifier at Wembley, it appears the mind games have already begun.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
With only a few days to go until the massive England versus Israel Euro 2008 qualifier at Wembley Stadium this weekend, it appears the psychological mind games have already begun. Both teams and their management know how important this game is: a loss could end their chances of qualifying for the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland next summer. But the Israelis have the upper hand. The press conference held at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan on Monday seemed to be carefully stage managed, with Israel coach Dror Kashtan and then central defender Shimon Gershon coming out with clear messages that quite blatantly contradicted each other. While Kashtan came across as cautious, Gershon displayed his confidence. Kashtan repeatedly told the assembled reporters how he believed that England was a strong side despite injuries to star players Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Frank Lampard, and that any result other than a loss would be "one of the greatest achievements of Israeli soccer." Gershon, who took the stage at the press conference after Kashtan had stepped down from the microphones, took every opportunity to tell the media, and the thousands watching the press conference live on television, that Israel has a "good chance" of winning the game and that the English will be under more pressure than the visiting Israeli side at the start of the match. When Kashtan was asked if he would be playing the defensive formation McClaren had said he expected, the Israel coach was rightly careful to keep his cards to his chest. The effect was clear and simple. The duo immediately showed the Israeli public and England that the players are confident and believe in themselves, while the coach is there to keep them all in check by making sure they realize the difficulty of the task ahead. Perhaps we are giving the Israeli management more credit than it deserves, but it was Kashtan himself who stressed that he believed England coach Steve McClaren would be listening to every word he said at the media conference. If it was indeed the aim, then it is exactly the right message to put across. Kashtan has managed to quickly put the weak performance and loss in last month's friendly match against Belarus behind him and concentrate on what could be the most important game of his long and impressive coaching career. There's no doubt that Israel will have to play with a defensive formation in the highly charged atmosphere of the newly opened Wembley Stadium, but Gershon is not wrong in saying that Israel has a good chance of grabbing a surprise win. England, and more specifically McClaren, are under enormous pressure. The English media have made no qualms about stressing that only two wins from the games against Israel on Saturday and Russia four days later will do. It will not be so easy for the English, not only because of the injury worries. Neither Israel nor Russia are weak sides and the lack of confidence in McClaren from the English public is likely sensed by his squad, as it was during the 0-0 draw in Ramat Gan in March. The decision to bring Emile Heskey back to the team has the potential to backfire dramatically. Heskey with Michael Owen is an extremely weak front line, with Heskey a consistently poor goal scorer and Owen only very recently back from a long-term injury. Of course there is still quality throughout the England squad, but it is a weakened squad questioning its ability to make it out of the group and into the European Championships. The Israeli players know they have little to lose from going all-out for the win. Ben Sahar will be missed, but youngsters like Barak Itzhaki and Toto Tamuz will be eager to impress on the world stage and still have the youthful exuberance of a young Michael Owen. The experience of Yossi Benayoun, Tal Ben-Haim and Idan Tal will be crucial to maintain order and cool heads during the game. Preparation is always key, and the decision to spend four days in England training before the game can only help. Israel will be the underdog, but a strong defensive display by Arik Benado and Shimon Gershon along with a late goal from Tamuz could set off crazy celebrations in Israel and propel the national team toward qualification for its first major tournament since the 1970 World Cup.