Basketball / EuroBasket qualifiers / Israel aims to keeps cool against Iceland
With three games left, the race for automatic qualification heats up.
In four of its last seven EuroBasket qualification games, Israel has won by a double-digit margin - including a 31-point victory in Estonia and a 27-point triumph over tonight's opponent, Iceland.
This evening Israel hosts Iceland for the return game and, it seems, the last of the qualifying games in which the winning margin is almost as important as actually winning.
In order to be sure of a place in next summer's finals in Slovenia, without the nerve-racking wait to see whether it is one of the best third-placed finishers, Israel needs to finish second. Runaway group leader Montenegro, which has a perfect record so far, is a shoo-in for top spot. But three teams - Israel, Serbia and Estonia - are all vying for the second ticket.
Serbia is currently ahead of Israel, thanks to its superior points difference, but Israel's last game - after tonight and a road game against bottom team Slovakia on Saturday night - is against the Serbs in Belgrade.
If Israel fails to finish second - if it loses to Serbia, for example - it has to hope that its record is good enough to snag one of the four places available to teams finishing third in the group.
"If you start thinking about the margin before the game," says small forward Guy Pnini, "you're asking for trouble. We have to simply concentrate on doing our best on every play - offense and defense. When there's five minutes left to play, it's natural to start looking at the scoreboard and to try and increase the margin."
The atmosphere at yesterday's training session was positive, with the players joking with each other and everyone joining in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" for Yuval Naimy, who turned 27 a few days ago.
But when it came to shooting practice, it was impossible not to notice that the team was split into two distinct camps: at one end of the court, the seven players who have been getting game time - Omri Casspi, Lior Eliyahu, Yogev Ohayon, Yotam Halperin, Alex Tyus, Raviv Limonad and Pnini; at the other end, the rest of the roster.
Throughout this qualification campaign, commentators have been urging the national team coaches to expand the number of players used. But for tonight's game, when the goal is to win as handsomely as possible, it doesn't matter whether Arik Shevak uses his top seven players or his top five players.
At the same time that Israel is playing Iceland several other games will be played across the continent - some of which are as important to Israel as its own game. If Bulgaria loses to Germany, Azerbaijan is defeated by Sweden and Austria overcomes Hungary, Israel's record thus far will almost guarantee it a place in the finals. (See box ).
Assistant coach Arik Alfassi, however, is focusing on Yad Eliyahu - and rightly so. "First of all we have to win our next two matches," he said yesterday. "Then we can try to beat Serbia on the road knowing that, even if we lose, we can still make the finals."