The Last Word: Israel's hopes could end with Afek at the back

Looking back to the ban during and after the war with Hizbullah, it's exciting to finally see toplevel international soccer return to Israel.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
The agencies selling tickets for Israel's qualifiers for the 2008 European soccer championship have come up with a novel idea this time around. Up until a few weeks before any of the matches to be held at National Stadium in Ramat Gan, it is impossible to buy tickets for an individual game. Instead, fans have been forced to buy a group of tickets for all five remaining games or wait until just before the match and hope that there are still tickets left. Of course, this does come across as unfair, in that zealous supporters who like to get their tickets early to make sure they will get into the game might not want to watch Israel play Estonia or Macedonia. But what it will do is ensure a cracking atmosphere for all of the games (assuming the people who buy tickets for all the fixtures actually turn up), and put some sort of a stop to the fair-weather supporters, many of whom are only interested in seeing Israel play mighty England on March 24, 2007. Looking back to the ban on international matches in Israel during and after the war with Hizbullah, it really is exciting to finally see toplevel international soccer return to this country. The game against Croatia on Wednesday is of massive significance and will give Israel's fans a real idea of how good their team is. If Israel wins, it will move up to the top of Group E ahead of the England game. Since Dror Kashtan's arrival as coach in the summer, the national team has only produced good results. The three qualifiying games couldn't have ended much better - wins against Andorra and Estonia and a draw in Moscow - but the former Hapoel Tel Aviv coach will know that he will need to get a much better performance out of his players if Israel is to overcome the Croats. In all three of the games, the Israeli side put in a below-par performance, despite scoring four against Andorra, and it was only the spark provided by Yossi Benayoun against Estonia and Amit Ben-Shushan's partnership with Toto Tamuz against Russia which pushed them across the finish line. There's no doubt that Croatia will be no pushover. The team with the funky checkered shirts was unlucky to be knocked out by Australia in the World Cup this summer and clearly proved its worth against an out-of-sorts England side last month. Defenders Dario Simic and Robert Kovac - who both play in Italy at AC Milan and Juventus, respectively - provide some steel at the back and Brazilianborn striker Eduardo da Silva can always grab goals. With Benayoun, Ben-Shushan and Tamuz providing skill and surprise up front, and Betar Jerusalem's classy midfielder, Gal Alberman, teaming up with Bolton's Idan Tal in midfield, Israel's biggest worries are at the back. Against Estonia and Russia, the center back pairings looked uncomfortable for much of the games. Luckily, Shimon Gershon is starting to regain form after a disastrous start at Betar and there's a good chance his Jerusalem teammate, Tomer Ben-Yosef, will regain his fitness. One of the more pressing concerns is at right back. Kashtan seems to have taken his cue from Betar's former manager, Frenchman Luis Fernandez, and somehow became convinced that Omri Afek is a defender. He definitely is not, and if Afek plays at the right of defense, it could prove to be Israel's undoing. He has played in that position for most of the league matches this season, and while he set up the goal for Alberman against Haifa last weekend, Afek is naturally a midfield player and doesn't like to track back. In the slower-paced Israeli Premier League, this can be compensated for. But a mistake against Croatia could be extremely dangerous. Afek is a quality player, but let's hope he doesn't become the liability which ruins Israel's attempts to qualify for the finals of another major competition.