Ronaldo - Reuters - 31.7.11
Brazil’s former striker Ronaldo at the draw in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Reuters
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Before the draw, Avi Luzon, chairman of the Israel Football Association, declared that he would prefer to receive weak and unattractive teams so that the national team might have a chance to reach the finals in Brazil in 2014. As far as Luzon was concerned, he would rather finish the qualification campaign with an empty purse and a ticket to Rio de Janiero than the other way around.

The result was the worst of both worlds: Portugal and Russia are both very strong teams, yet neither are particularly attractive. Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg are not expected to cause any serious problems, but they still fail to rouse the imagination.

"Portugal and Russia are the favorites from this group," claimed Dick Advocaat, Russia's coach. "I actually preferred not to receive Israel, which is a strong team, especially at home. Israel is a very difficult opponent." Incidentally, Advocaat might lose his job within a few months if Russia fails to qualify for Euro 2012.

One of his most potent strikers, Roman Pavlyuchenko, sees the draw as an opportunity for revenge: Portugal made mincemeat of the Russians 7-1 in the World Cup qualifiers in 2006, and Israel beat the Russians 2-1 in the build up to Euro 2008.

"In today's football there aren't any easy rivals anymore," claimed Paulo Bento, Portugal's coach. "Russia is very strong and usually qualifies for the big tournaments. Their absence from the 2010 World Cup was a one-off. Israel is now fighting it out with Croatia and Greece for a ticket to the upcoming Euro. These two teams will naturally be our main rivals, but we can't ignore the fact that we often drop points against lesser teams as well." "Of course Russia is our main rival," said Portuguese striker Hugo Almeida. "Playing Israel won't be easy, and Northern Ireland can also surprise us." Nigel Worthington, Northern Ireland's coach, is wary of Israel: "That is one difficult nut to crack, and there are some other strong teams, but then again, we could also have ended up with even tougher opponents," he said.

Another coach who, like Advocaat, might be fired sooner rather than later is Azerbaijan's coach Berti Vogts. Despite heavy funding from the Azeri association, he has yet to show significant improvement of his team. Shahin Denayev, Azerbaijan's ex-coach, tried to be as realistic as possible: "Portugal, Russia and Israel are much better teams than us," he said. "We can't qualify for the World Cup. Our only aim can be to get as many points as possible."

Israel's national coach, Luis Fernandez, who joined Luzon on the trip to Rio, tried to ignore the results of the draw and preferred to concentrate on the immediate future. "The only thing that's really important now is our upcoming game against Greece, which will hopefully keep us in the race for Euro 2012," he said. "We'll have enough time to think of these games when the time comes, but right now my only hope is that the stadium will be full of noisy fans for the game against Greece."

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Israel's Rivals

PORTUGAL

FIFA ranking: 7

Times qualified: 5

Best achievement: 3rd place, (1966 )

Coach: Paulo Bento

Stars: C. Ronaldo, Nani, Caravalho, Pepe

RUSSIA

FIFA ranking: 18

Times qualified: 2

Best achievement: Group stage

Coach: Dick Advocaat

Stars: Arshavin, Igor Akinfeev, Roman Pavlyuchenko

NORTHERN IRELAND

FIFA ranking: 62

Times qualified: 3

Best achievement: Quarterfinals (twice )

Coach: Nigel Worthington

Stars: Steven Davis, David Healy, Johnny Evans

AZERBAIJAN

FIFA ranking: 111

Times qualified: Never

Best achievement: -

Coach: Berti Vogts

Stars: Kamran Agayev, Vagif Javadov

LUXEMBOURG

FIFA ranking: 128

Times qualified: -

Best achievement: -

Coach: Luc Holtz

Stars: Marc Oberweis, Daniel da Mota