Euro 2008 / No walk in the park
Out of all the teams in the national team's Euro 2008 qualification group, the one that has made the most progress over the past decade is Estonia.
So what if Estonia was once, not too long ago, hammered for seven by Israel, and so what if Israel's opponent on Saturday night does not score many goals or have a particularly impressive record; out of all the teams in the national team's Euro 2008 qualification group, the one that has made the most progress over the past decade is Estonia.
On the eve of Euro 1996, Estonia's FIFA ranking was 134th in the world, while Israel was in 44th place; today, Israel has slipped back somewhat, to 51st place, while Estonia now ranks 78th.
And the progress is not limited on the national team level alone: Last week, Levadia Tallinn became the first Estonian club in history to qualify for the first round of the UEFA Cup.
This doesn't mean that Israel cannot or should not win on Saturday and come home with three points in the bag, but it is not going to be easy.
At a press conference yesterday, Estonia coach Jelle Goes reiterated that his charges had to get at least a point out of Saturday's game and could not afford to lose at home again. "Israel is clearly a better team, but we are going for a win at home," the Dutchman said.
Goalkeeper Mart Poom, Estonia's greatest player of all time, sounded a little more modest than his coach, but also spoke of securing a point. "We have forgotten the game against Macedonia; this is a new challenge now, and I believe we will take a point. We will be happy to win our first points in this campaign."
Poom, currently with Arsenal and formerly of both Derby County and Sunderland, knows the Israelis who play in England, and Yossi Benayoun in particular. He said yesterday that he had consulted with Arsenal teammate and Swiss international Philippe Senderos, who played against Israel in the World Cup qualifiers, about Dror Kashtan's side.
"Senderos told me about Switzerland's games against Israel," Poom said. "He said Israel was a good side and warned me about Yossi Benayoun in particular. I think our main objective has to be to stop Benayoun; he is Israel's most dangerous player."
Coach Goes, on the other hand, didn't seem to concerned about Benayoun, and interjected: "While I do indeed know exactly who Benayoun is, Estonia under me plays a zone defense, and there will be no man-marking or special attention paid to any player, no matter his personal skills."
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