The Last Word: The benefits of friendlies are plain to see

Israel's match against the Ivory Coast was a superb illustration of the benefits of such encounters.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
While many have been quick to deride friendly internationals as "meaningless," Israel's match against the Ivory Coast in Ramat Gan on Wednesday was a superb illustration of the benefits of such encounters. It's true that this week's game was never going to be a perfect indicator of how the national team would react when playing a team of a similar level in a competitive match such as a World Cup qualifier - the atmosphere and level of ferocity were nowhere near as high. And a lot can happen in the four months between Wednesday's game and March 28 when Israel hosts Greece for the first of two World Cup qualifiers to be played within a few days. However, it would be foolish to dismiss the friendly as being without use. Like other games of this nature, Wednesday's served as a barometer, giving coach Dror Kashtan to analyze his team and consider his options in terms of improvement. So what can Kashtan take from the game? First the positives. As we have seen on so many occasions, Israel is a side that plays as a team and is far greater than the sum of its parts. Apart from Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun the Israel squad does not contain any other top class stars. But when players like Maccabi Haifa's Biram Kiyal and Betar Jerusalem's Yoav Ziv combine with foreign-based teammates such as Elyaniv Barda and Omer Golan the team comes together and works hard to become difficult to break down. This became apparent on Wednesday when the Ivory Coast took most of the first half to find the net, and then only through a deflection, despite including in its side many high level players who ply their trade in the English Premiership, the German Bundesliga or France's Ligue 1. Chelsea's Solomon Kalou and Didier Drogba failed to score as they appeared to underestimate the resilience of the Israelis. The second positive came from the way Israel scored its two goals - both on the counter attack. The strikes were well taken and illustrated how Kashtan's men have the ability to soak up pressure and then break with speed and precision. Barda's strike in particular, which put Israel 1-0 up after just 18 minutes, had all the hallmarks of a strikers goal and showed why he has done so well in the Belgian league over the last year or so. The third point, which comes from the two goals, is both positive and negative - Israel's reliance on the skill of Benayoun. We should be delighted that Israel captain had such an impressive game and set up both the goals, but it should be a concern to Kashtan that he is the only really classy player in the team. Youngsters Maor Buzaglo and Aviram Bruchian came on in the second half but neither had the impact the fans would be hoping for. The second negative came in the last few minutes when Israel gave into its opponent's pressure and let go of its lead. Just like at the end of the qualifier at Latvia last month the Israeli players were unable to hold on to the win, and were clearly nervous as the game drew to a close. Kashtan needs to work on the psychological preparation in order to ensure that the players don't crumble when they are winning. The games against Greece, which pulled out an impressive 1-1 draw with Italy in its friendly on Wednesday, won't be easy. But this week was an important test for the coach and his staff and will give everyone involved in the national team set up much to think about before the next friendly against Hungary in February.