The Tsirion stadium in Limassol has not been a friendly arena for Israeli soccer.
The national team's previous two official matches ended in defeat (in 1999 and 1996). Israel fared a bit better in 1993, when it managed to play to a 2-2 tie in a friendly match against Cyprus at this stadium.
Avraham Grant and his squad hope to do better when they take to the field tomorrow night. (The game is scheduled to be broadcast at 8 P.M. on Channel One and Reshet Bet.) A victory would give the team an important boost of confidence for its next rival in the Euro 2004 qualifiers - the French national team.
Before departing for Cyprus, the team held a final training session in Ramat Gan. Based on the latest workouts, the likely starters appear to be: Dudu Awat, Alon Harazi, Tal Ben Haim, Arik Benado, Aduram Keisi, Ida Tal (or Yigal Antebi), Tal Banin, Walid Badir, Michael Zandberg (Avi Nimni), Yossi Benayoun and Haim Revivo.
Grant has still not decided which player will anchor the left side of the defense and who will play midfielder on the left side. Michael Zandberg practiced all week as left defender, but during the last two days, Idan Tal and Yigal Antebi have been competing for this slot.
Grant realizes that Antebi is only effective as a defender, while Tal can also help out on the offense and as a midfielder.
Zandberg, who was slated to play this position, will be moved forward due to the questionable playing status of Avi Nimni. According to Grant, "Nimni is not in top physical shape, but it's a known fact that players who are not playing on their teams do well on the national squad. Nimni always is motivated and has ability when it comes to the national team."
In practice yesterday, Omri Afek also played as a midfielder. Together with Baruch Dago, he could be a last-minute surprise on the team. The full back Aduram Keisi was suffering from the flu during the past several days, but appears to be recovering. The practice today in Cyprus will provide an opportunity to determine whether he is fit to play. "I'm sick, but I want to play," Keisi said yesterday.
Hapoel Tel Aviv's midfielder Ben Luz was released from the national team, leaving 20 players who made the trip to Cyprus. On game day, Grant will decide which two players will be left off the game roster.
Cyprus Coach Momcilo Vukotic also is leaving some decisions about his lineup to the last moment. Local reporters said yesterday that Vukotic is under heavy pressure to include Panathinaikos FC striker Michalis Konstantinou on the squad, despite some questions about his physical fitness. FC PAOK Thessaloniki forward Yiannakis Okkas is a definite starter, and he will be joined by Reiner Rauffmann unless replaced by Konstantinou.
Four years ago, there were 5,000 Israeli fans in the Limassol stadium. But only 150 Israeli supporters are expected to be in the stands tomorrow, following the cancellation of two charters slated to fly to Cyprus.
On the other hand, at least 13,000 Cypriot fans are expected to cheer their team in what is being described as Cyprus' most important game in the Euro 2004 qualifiers. Some 1,000 police officers will be at the stadium and a special security detail will accompany Israel's team throughout its stay in Cyprus.
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