The only bright spot for the Israeli national soccer team, which was beaten 2-0 on Wednesday night in a friendly international in Ukraine, was the fact that Northern Ireland recorded a shock victory over Russia in the World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Ulstermen's victory may have slightly improved Israel's chances of overtaking the Russians and grabbing second place in Group F of the campaign, but if Eli Guttman's players continue to put on the kind of performances that they did in Kiev, it will take a lot more than a few freak results to book Israel's place in Brazil next summer. Three weeks before the must-win matches against Azerbaijan and Russia, Israel's position looks dire.
Guttman, too, is well aware of the situation – even if, in public, he is maintaining the kind of blind optimism that characterizes Israeli soccer coaches.
"I believe that we can take second place in the group," he declared after Wednesday's defeat, "and I told the players as much. We will rectify whatever needs putting right. I will identify the problems and I am sure that by the time we play Azerbaijan we can fix them. After all, exhibition games are designed for exactly that purpose."
Behind closed doors, however, Guttman expressed disappointment with his players and their seeming inability to implement the plays they have been working on in training.
"I gave them very specific instructions and I showed them on the whiteboard exactly what I want them to do," Guttman says, "but when they get out onto the pitch nothing works. I simply can't understand it." Guttman is convinced that he is getting more out of the national team than anyone can expect, given the cadre of players at his disposal. He has told close associates that he does not expect to be able to rectify the major problems in the short term.
According to one national team insider, "Guttman knows exactly what the problems are, but he doesn't have a magic solution. There simply aren't two Israeli defenders of sufficiently high quality to come in and make everything alright."
Guttman's major problem, therefore, is the fact that his best two defenders are Yuval Spungin and Rami Gershon. "You can't win games without attacking wingbacks," the insider adds. "The two Ukrainian goals were the result of their defenders joining in the attack. When you don't have defenders capable of doing that, you've got no chance."
The injury sustained by Avi Reikan, who had been drafted into the roster to give Guttman a chance to examine his alternatives, has effectively put paid to the likelihood that the coach will make any major changes to his lineup for the games against Azerbaijan and Russia.
In retrospect, Guttman admitted that he was wrong to drop Maharan Radi from his squad in favor of Beram Kayal – and that he should have played with Lior Refaelov instead of Maor Melikson. He is also aware of the problems in attack and could recall Elyaniv Barda and Omer Damari. That, however, is about the extent of the options available to him. He will call up two or three new players and will change one or two positions, but Guttman – as he always does – will forge ahead with the squad and the formation he believes in.
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