Israel's soccer team will need a series of miracles to qualify for Euro 2004 following the draw for the tournament in Porto on Friday.
Israel was drawn in qualifying Group 1 with the world and European champions France, and with Slovenia, who have proved their credentials by qualifying for the World Cup this summer, as well as with two tricky smaller sides - Cyprus and Malta.
The French will not easily forget the amazing 3-2 win Israel snatched from them in Paris in 1993, but assuming the French will win the group, Israel's problems lie elsewhere. While the National Stadium is a fortress, gaining away points - especially against Slovenia - will be the key to finishing second in the group.
Cyprus has for long been Israel's bogey, having won both its last encounters in Limassol against a cocky squad that was always too sure of victory, and in any case that failed for a long time to produce its best form in away fixtures.
Malta is weaker than Cyprus but will also be a tough nut for a victory on home soil. This will require coach Richard Nielsen to produce not only a good attacking side, but also a team of stubborn defenders who are not afraid of playing in hostile stadiums.
The matches will be played on the following dates - in 2002: September 7-8 and October 12-13; in 2003: March 29-20, April 1-2, June 7-8 and 10-11, September 6-7 and 9-10, October 11-12.
The playoffs among the second place finishers will be played on November 15-16 and 18-19.
What is still to be determined is the teams who will fit into those slots, and the meeting to decide this will be held in Limassol on February 19 with the representatives of all the nations trying to thrash out a schedule which more or less acceptable to all.
Israel will want to start with a home fixture, preferably against one of the weaker teams on September 8 in the hope that this will get the campaign off to a positive start. This day is the end of Rosh Hashana and if possible the IFA wants all the players to be close to home during the holiday.
Slovenia could also be a good option for the first match, coach Richard Nielsen feels.
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