The Last Word: The big match is here at last, but will it live up to its billing?

More than a year after the fixture was announced, the hype and excitement over the visit of the English national soccer team to Israel is finally about to be realized.

jeremy last 88 (photo credit: )
jeremy last 88
(photo credit: )
Talk about a build-up. More than a year after the fixture was announced, the hype and excitement over the visit of the superstars of the English national soccer team to Israel is finally about to be realized. At 9:30 p.m. Thursday night, Rooney, Lampard, Terry and their fellow Premiership players will land at Ben-Gurion Airport to prepare for the first-ever competitive soccer match between Israel and England. As we get closer to Saturday night's kickoff, every move of the players of both teams will be scrutinized by the world's media. Hundreds of journalists will attend press conferences and pack the oversubscribed press box at Ramat Gan's National Stadium on Saturday night. The anticipation really is becoming palpable. But the question has to be asked, is this the worst time we could ever have imagined for Israel to face England? Once you look past the hype, it is clear that neither team is anywhere close to the quality they have had in the past. While it is of course exciting and monumental that England will be playing here, it is unlikely that the two teams will put on a show to match the occasion. England has clearly, to use a cricket analogy in honor of the World Cup currently being held in the Caribbean, been knocked for six in recent games. The defeat to Spain, which followed the loss in Croatia, has caused concern among England fans, who were once used to watching a strong and impressive team. England manager Steve McClaren was never the man for the job and his bad team selections, coupled with a lack of inspiration, has left England in an even worse position than after the shocking performances during the World Cup last summer. Injuries to veteran right back Gary Neville and two left backs, Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole, won't help the situation. England will be weak at the back and inexperienced in attack. Everton's Andrew Johnson is expected to start alongside Wayne Rooney in a shaky front line. Although Rooney has regained his scoring touch, bagging two in Manchester United's 4-1 rout of Tal Ben-Haim's Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, Johnson hasn't had a chance to get used to playing for his country. Johnson, or "A.J." as he once was known on the terraces of Selhurst Park when he delighted the fans of Crystal Palace, has had a positive season at Everton, having scored 11 goals for the blues, but may be overwhelmed by the occasion. Those unfamiliar with the players on the local team have immediately pointed to the fact that Israel managed to draw with Russia away and put three past Croatia despite losing 4-3 to prove the excitement and quality of Israel. "We can beat anyone on their day," they say. But this is not the team of Revivo and Berkovic which swept past Austria 5-1 in 1999. Israel once played with a stunning flair that shocked opponents, but the appointment of Avraham Grant regressed the team into defensive tactics which stifled the more exciting players. Although his replacement, Dror Kashtan, has tried to bring back some excitement with the introduction of young players such as Betar Jerusalem's Amit Ben-Shushan and Toto Tamuz and Chelsea's teenage sensation, Ben Sahar, it will be a surprise if the team produces a dramatic performance. Ben-Shushan was not picked for these games after hardly playing for his club in recent weeks. And despite all the hype of Tamuz, he has failed to impress since scoring two against Maccabi Haifa at the start of February. One other worry is the injury to captain Yossi Benayoun, a player who could have been key to a good Israel result. When it comes down to it, the fact is that England may have been playing badly recently but with a little team talk, it is more than likely that Steven Gerrard and his teammates will easily do away with the Israelis and then go and win in Andorra and move to the top of Group E. However, this is not a time for doom and gloom, and there are some positives to look out for. The razzmatazz, first of all, will create a wonderful atmosphere in Ramat Gan. Israel may not be the best team ever, but it will hopefully play with grit and heart and it will be a tough match. And luckily Omri Afek is out injured! One man to watch could be Betar Jerusalem's Yoav Ziv, who may get the nod to play at right back. Ziv is by no means a classy player but he fights to the end and epitomizes the spirit Israel will need if it will come away with a positive result.