Georgia on their mind
Israel lands in Tbilisi for Tuesday's qualifier, but can it hold off a team dead-set on joining Europe's big time?
Israel's national soccer team landed in Tbilisi on Sunday ahead of Tuesday's Euro 2012 qualifier against Georgia.
Georgian head coach Temuri Ketsbaia is expected to deploy a 4-4-2 formation, with veteran forward Alexander Iashvili of Karlsruhe planning to take his usual place on the attack alongside Vladimir Dvalishvili, the Maccabi Haifa striker who knows Israeli soccer as well as anyone on the team.
Georgia drew 1-1 at Greece on Friday, with Iashvili scoring the visitors' only goal. At Sunday's press conference in Tbilisi, Ketsbaia had only praise for his squad's next opponent.
"We all know Croatia is the best team in the group, but in my opinion it's Israel that comes after it," Ketsbaia said. "Israel has good clubs and is represented in Europe, and don't forget that Hapoel Tel Aviv is playing in the Champions League and also has considerable representation on the Israeli national team. We are aiming for a good result that will leave us a chance to fight for the top spots in the group."
"No doubt it will be tough against Israel," added captain Kakha Kaladze. "But I believe we can win."
Georgia is currently tied with Greece for third in Group 6 with 1 point, behind Croatia and Israel with 3 points apiece.
Tbilisi's Boris Paichadze Stadium is expecting to fill up with 70,000 fans for the match.
One dream out of two ain't bad
One of Ketsbaia's dreams has already come true. In 2008-09 he led Cyprus' humble Anorthosis Famagusta to the Champions League group stage, even prevailing over Greek powerhouses Olympiacos and Panathinaikos.
The coach's second dream, however, seems far off. Ketsbaia, one of the finest players to emerge from Georgia in the past two decades, hopes to push his men into the European big leagues, first off by securing a berth in Euro 2012.
"I can't guarantee we'll advance," the coach said on taking his position last year, following Georgia's World Cup 2010 qualifying fiasco where the team managed only three points and not a single win. "But I promise we'll do everything to improve. My biggest dream is to see Georgian soccer return to its glory days." Ketsbaia declined to specify which glory days he was referring to, though Dinamo Tbilisi's 1981 victory at the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners' Cup would be a likely candidate.
On Friday following the draw to Greece, the coach sounded pleased. "This is a good way to start the campaign. The truth is that we may have forgotten what it's like to get three points, but this result is indeed encouraging, as was the quality of play."
Georgian soccer has long rested on individual technique and creativity. From the 1950s to the end of Russian rule, a Soviet-style regimen of law and order prevailed. Today, however, little of that remains. On Georgia's independence in 1991, players left the resource-poor republic in droves for the money-green pitches of Europe.
Today the national team is a loose collective of individualist players, characterized by adventurous play, but where ball losses and ineffectual defense are common.
Ketsbaia, 42, is both charismatic and sharp-tongued. A forward and attacking midfielder at a slew of European clubs - his career peaked at England's Newcastle - as a coach he has focused tirelessly on improving the team's defense.
One of his most critical projects has been Kaladze, the captain who for nearly a decade was a stalwart defensive presence at AC Milan. Now 32, Kaladze was loaned ahead of this season to Genoa, with many soccer pundits predicting his career's quick wane.
The criticism has made Kaladze both slow and prickly, and his half-hearted performance against the milqetoast Greek offense left much to be desired.
On the other end of the spectrum is the recently called-up Zhano Ananidze of Spartak Moscow. During the 36 minutes he got Friday, the 17-year-old midfielder displayed potent ability, and experts say he could be the team's star of the future. His slight frame doesn't allow him to give his all for the full 90 minutes - at least not yet - but his tactical vision, passing skill and ability to shoot with either foot easily compensate for that.
Ananidze internalized the style of soccer distinctive of Dynamo Kiev - maybe one of the finest clubs in the former Soviet bloc, where he spent two seasons - and since age 16 he has plied his trade in the Russian league, where he averaged 64 minutes on the pitch for Spartak. "I'm Georgian and I'll play for my country," he said recently, dismissing any speculation of him playing for Russia.
Since his appointment, Ketsbaia has yet to lose, presiding over a win and two draws in qualification before last week's draw with Greece. He may not have an all-star roster, or even one that is better than Israel's, but his determination to create national pride through soccer is something Israel ignores at its peril.
As defender Dato Kvirkvelia said on the eve of the campaign, "I'd love to do something for my country - something big."