Israel landed in Palermo yesterday under heavy security ahead of its Euro 2004 qualifier against France on Wednesday. A helicopter flew overhead and armed police surrounded the national team's plane and escorted the players to their coach.
The team held a training session in the evening at Palermo stadium, which will serve as its home pitch due to the ban on the national hosting games as a result of the security situation in Israel.
The team suffered a blow after Racing Santander midfielder Yossi Benayoun apparently broke a toe in a clash with a Cypriot player toward the end of Saturday's 1-1 draw and will not play against France. Aviv Nimni was also suffering from knee trouble and could be doubtful for the game. The French team will arrive in Palermo this afternoon.
Coach Avraham Grant blamed his players' poor physical fitness for allowing Cyprus to get back into the game in the second half after Omri Afek had given Israel the lead only two minutes into the game. "The Israeli league isn't played at a European pace. The players aren't fit enough. They tired and allowed Cyprus to take the initiative," Grant said.
Walid Badir, who missed an opportunity to give Israel a 2-0 lead a minute before the end of the first half, when he rounded the Cypriot `keeper but sent the ball crashing into the post and then missed another golden opportunity, sending an easy header wide of the goal, said that he couldn't remember what happened. "All I know is that the ball hit the post and didn't go in," Badir said.
Ahead of the crucial game against France, which was in dazzling form against Malta on Saturday, Israel's captain Tal Banin recalled Israel's famous away victory over the French that stopped the current European champions from qualifying for the World Cup in 1994. "Things like that are one off, but they can repeat themselves. We have to forget about the game against Cyprus, because things didn't go well. I'm sure though that if we play like we did in the first half in Cyprus, things will be different, but one has to remember we are talking about France."
Assistant team coach Yossi Mizrahi summed up the feeling in the Israel camp ahead of the clash with France. "Their game against Malta was a concert. They simply danced football."
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