England expects, but Israel experiments
A win or draw at the Ramat Gan is vital to keep England’s hopes alive — but it doesn’t look good
Israel is fielding a team of virtual novices
The best player and captain is injured
And (wait for it) the keeper’s coach is Russian
EURO 2008 English eyes will be fixed on the Ramat Gan tomorrow night as Israel take on Russia in a Euro 2008 qualifier. The hosts have no chance of reaching the finals but a draw or win against the Russians will enable England to progress if they can beat Group E leaders Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday.
Not one for sentiment, Israel head coach Dror Kashtan is set to field an inexperienced line-up against a Russian team who boosted their qualification hopes with a 2-1 victory against England in Moscow last month. Kashtan has named a 23-man squad with a view to getting things right ahead of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Wit h c a p t a i n Yossi Benayoun out with a torn abductor, Israel look set to unleash teenage sensation Maor Buzaglo.
Last weekend the 19-year-old was given a sheep by a grateful Bnei Sakhnin fan after he scored in the 3-1 victory over Ashdod. The Jewish star of Israel’s top Arab club now has the chance to become the toast of England.
“It has always been my dream to play for the national team,” said Buzaglo. “It is just a shame that my chance might come because of an injury to Yossi Benayoun. I hope to play alongside him in the national team in future games.”
Buzaglo’s rise to stardom has been a major surprise even though he has often been touted as the natural heir to Eyal Berkovic and Benayoun. In the summer Maccabi Haifa manager Roni Levy deemed him not yet good enough for the first team and sent him on loan to Sakhnin for the season. The teenager has been a revelation for the Galilee club with four goals and three assists, putting newly promoted Sakhnin in second place, three points behind leaders Betar Jerusalem.
Buzaglo has been equally devastating in the Israel Under-21 team, scoring in each of last month’s Euro 2009 qualifiers against Germany and Northern Ireland.
Kashtan had told colleagues that he was saving Buzaglo for Israel’s World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign next year, but Benayoun’s injury paired with Buzaglo’s scintillating performance last weekend convinced the Israeli manager that a gamble on the youngster may pay off.
Kashtan has dropped former Bolton and Everton midfielder Idan Tal along with experienced trio Arik Benado, Walid Badir and Pini Balili for the matches with Russia and at home to Macedonia on Wednesday.
Other youngsters in the squad include Dekel Keinan, Yuval Shpungin, Barak Yitzhaki, Amit Ben Shushan — who scored the late equaliser when Israel drew 1-1 in Russia last year — and Ben Sahar, even though he spends most of his time at QPR on the bench.
Tal Ben Haim, who has been promised a holiday to the destination of his choice by Chelsea teammate Joe Cole if Israel can do England a favour, will be handed the captain’s armband in Benayoun’s absence.
In attack, Argentinian-born Roberto Colautti returns from injury after making his debut for Borussia Monchengladbach last weekend, along with outof-form Genk marksman Elyaniv Barda. Tamir Cohen, son of former Liverpool star Avi Cohen, who made an impres- sive debut in last month’s 1-0 defeat in Croatia, is likely to start in midfield alongside Betar’s Gal Alberman and Buzaglo. Deportivo La Coruna’s Dudu Awate returns to goal after missing the match in Zagreb through suspension.
In another twist, it was this week revealed that Israel’s goalkeeping coach Alexander Ubarov is a Russian and he is rooting for his home nation.
More than 8,000 Russians will travel to Ramat Gan including Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov.
In addition, thousands of Israelis who immigrated to the country from the former Soviet Union will be cheering on the Russians.
England can take comfort from the fact that Israel has only lost one match at Ramat Gan in the past eight years. And if Buzaglo makes a difference, England fans should note that his family keep kosher in their Karmiel home, so kosher wine would be preferable to champagne as a winner’s reward.
Another incentive is bookmaker and England fan Fred Done’s offer of a £50,000 top-of- the-range Mercedes to the scorer of an Israeli winning goal.
Our great hope: Maor Buzaglo is 90 minutes from earning hero status