KIEV - The shockwaves following last September's abject 4-0 trouncing in Ramat Gan by Russia caused national team coach Eli Guttman to rethink his game plan.
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Since then Israel's performances results have gradually improved – if not for the tragic last-minute blunder by goalkeeper Dudu Aouate against Portugal that led to a 3-3 draw, Israel would now be level on points with its two greatest qualification rivals. The national team arrived in Kiev on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s friendly international against Ukraine - the last warm-up game before next month’s two crucial encounters with Azerbaijan and Russia, which will decide qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Portugal stands atop Qualifying Group F with 14 points from seven games, followed by Russia (which plays in Belfast on Wednesday night) with 13 points from five games and Israel with 12 points from six games. Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Northern Ireland have no chance of securing qualification.
The Ukrainian authorities have been taking no chances ahead of Wednesday's encounter. Kiev's National Hotel has been cordoned off by police and the Israeli delegation comprises its only guests.
During its two preparatory training sessions, the team practiced soaking up extended pressure before launching fast breakaway attacks. Meanwhile, Guttman has been holding one-on-one discussions with his charges. For example, he devoted time to encouraging second-choice goalkeeper Danny Amos, who has had a less than inspiring opening to the season with Hapoel Tel Aviv.
The coach also pointed out to Shiran Yeini that his role effectively as a third central defender is designed both to bolster the rearguard and to allow Bibras Natkho more freedom going forward, even though the Rubin Kazan midfielder is not the fastest of players. This is an important aspect of Guttman's revised game plan.
When he first took up the role, Guttman had a clear vision of how the national team should play: a central defensive midfielder, two midfielders further forward and an attacking midfielder free to roam between two strikers. The system worked well in the local league, but the trouncing by Russia brought about a change in concept.
"Guttman deserves credit for realizing that what worked with Hapoel Tel Aviv doesn't necessarily work with the national team," one of the players said. "We don't have the suitable tools at our disposal and the opposition is not a weak local league team. Guttman paid the price with the draw against Azerbaijan and loss to Russia, and changed his approach. Some coaches wouldn't have admitted their mistake and carried on regardless, using the same approach, throughout the campaign."
Under the new system Yeini will effectively operate as a third central defender, even if Guttman describes him as (an extremely deep) defensive midfielder. The offense will feature a single striker flanked by two wider forwards. One of them is sure to be Eden Ben Bassat, whose style of play perfectly suits the new game plan. His primary role will be to back up Shimon Gershon in defense on the left flank - indeed, Ben Bassat spends more time close to Gershon than in the opposition's half.
Guttman has also reneged on his previous decision not to field players who cannot secure a slot on their clubs' first teams, and both Itay Schechter and Gershon have become regulars on the national team. They have proved their worth in the national team jersey: Gershon scored against Portugal while Schechter was outstanding against Northern Ireland.
Sources close to the national team point to the 2-0 victory over Northern Ireland in March as a victory for the new game plan. Without performing particularly well, moving the ball around or threatening the locals' goal, Israel struck twice via fast breakaway attacks down the flanks. "Guttman realized that the way to success is through strengthening the defense," said one source.
"We have the ability to score against any team in any game," the coach told his charges after Monday's practice, in an obvious reference to the crunch game in St. Petersburg on September 10. "If we can protect our goal, we will always achieve our aim. We have enough talent in attack – we just have to protect our home."
But before the real test comes Wednesday's friendly game against Ukraine. The Israeli squad was rather taken aback by the abilities displayed during a video of the Ukrainians in action screened for them after the practice. Guttman briefed his charges on the individual players, and especially warned about the fleet-footed Ukrainian wingers. He noted that Ukraine is an extremely fast team that relies on the long balls and is especially dangerous from set pieces.
"It's an excellent team, a scary team, with fast players who have considerable individual skills," he concluded.
The paradox is that while defense is Israel's main concern, its makeup is already known. Guttman's main headache at this point is who to name in his attack.
"The fullback positions have been problematic in the national team for years," noted one national team source. "Right now, Yuval Sungin and Rami Gershon are the best Israeli soccer has to offer. The problem with them is that they can't contribute much to the team when going forward, because of fear of deserting the defense and leaving it open to [opposition] breakaway attacks. This is why our attacking game gets stuck so often."
Guttman plans a similar approach to his intended game plan against Russia, with Spungin and Gershon, together with Yeini, Maharan Radi and Natkho, focusing mainly on defense. According to the coach's instructions, when Natkho does make forays upfield, Radi and Yeini will hang back to help on defense.
"We competed against [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Portugal could only force a draw out of us. So we'll come here like men and play both defense and offense," the coach declared. "We'll also do here what we have to do. We'll play without fear."