Israel's national under-21 team failed last night to qualify for Sweden 2009, after losing 3-1 at Bloomfield Stadium to their Italian counterparts. After a goalless draw in Italy in the first leg, Israel knew that only a victory would be enough to book its place at the finals of the European Championship for the second time in succession, but in reality never looked likely to do so.
Watched by 15,000 fans - their numbers swelled by a sane pricing policy and the Sukkot vacation - Israel got off to the worst possible start.
With just four minutes on the clock, and with the crowd still in good voice, Mario Balotelli, the burly Inter Milan striker, was fouled some 30 meters from goal. He then proceeded to smash the ball past Ohad Levita, silencing the crowd and making Israel's task all the more difficult.
The Israeli players were not down and out at this stage, and they started to make their presence felt. In the ninth minute, Guy Assulin found himself alone against the last Italian defender, but he hesitated and the opportunity was wasted.
For a team that prided itself on solid defending, Israel was looking sorely exposed at the back - and the mercurial Italian midfield took full advantage on several occasions. In the 25th minute, Balotelli once again did the damage to Israel's fast-receding hopes of making the finals, when he was left free in front of goal to send a piledriver into the Israeli goal, silencing Bloomfield again.
When the half-time whistle blew, the stadium announcer, who exhorted the crowd not to stop their vocal encouragement, was perhaps the only person in Israel who still believed that the blue-and-whites had a chance of turning the game around. When Davide Lanzafame got his head onto the business end of a perfect cross from Balotelli, just two minutes from the restart, it looked for all the world as if the Italians had a three-goal cushion and Israel's campaign would come to an ignominious end. Instead, the ball smacked onto the goalpost and rebounded to safety.
Eight minutes later, Israel got a lifeline, when Assulin - Israel's man of the match - sent a wonderful pass to substitute Tal Ben Haim, who was pulled down in the penalty area. Toto Tamuz's spot kick was saved by the Italian 'keeper, but the Beitar Jerusalem forward followed up well and scored on the rebound.
Israel, urged forward by the crowd, went in search of an equalizer, but knowing that they needed to score two more goals to negate Italy's away-goal advantage, there was a lack of real conviction about the home team. And when Italy's Ignazio Abate ran half the length of the pitch to score a fine individual goal, the Israeli dream was well and truly over.
By the time the referee blew the final whistle, the stadium was half empty. Those supporters who remained in the stadium at the end of match gave the Israeli players a warm round of applause as they left the field, in recognition of the fact that they had come to within one game of making it to the European Championships.
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