After Portugal Flop, Israel Soccer Team Heads for N. Ireland

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A day after Israel's national soccer team snatched a draw from the jaws of victory, the players were grim at Saturday night's training session. Only coach Eli Guttman took any comfort from the 3-3 tie at the World Cup qualifiers in which Portugal scored deep into injury time.

The team flies to Belfast Sunday to prepare for an encounter Tuesday with Northern Ireland, where temperatures are below freezing. There's a chance the match will be postponed, as Northern Ireland's game Friday against Russia was. But the Israelis are still thinking about the win that got away.

“There was a game plan, and every player knew exactly what his role was," Guttman said after Friday's match." I promised that the [4-0] humiliation against Russia wouldn't be repeated. On the one hand I’m disappointed, but I’m also taking the good things from this game."

There were no smiles from the players and staff. Guttman may have been the only one satisfied in any way.

“He’s been suffering for a long time,” said a source close to the coach. “Ever since his first game at the helm he’s been criticized heavily [in the press] and he’s taken it hard. Despite the frustration of that equalizing goal, Guttman had an excellent weekend and can finally be proud again. The team played according to his game plan.”

The players were also disappointed by the Israeli media’s response: noting how the Portuguese had played poorly, especially superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Israeli midfielder Bibras Natkho begged to differ. “A month and a half ago I heard lots of criticism of our team after we narrowly beat Finland, and now Finland has drawn with Spain," he said.

"There has been criticism that Ronaldo was below par, but maybe they should have written that Ronaldo played poorly because his marker played so well? Maybe he didn’t play well because we did our job? It could be said that if we had thrown players forward, Portugal would have sent long balls to Ronaldo – then only God could have helped us prevent goals.”

Israel's chances of qualifying for the World Cup next year in Brazil are now greatly diminished after Dudu Aouate let in that last goal “There’s no need to blame Dudu," Nathko said. "A team isn't made up of one player. Maybe the high ball toward the goal should have been prevented in the first place.”

Central defender Eitan Tibi didn't like a question about the visitors’ second goal in which the Real Madrid star blew past him and set up Helder Postiga. “Ronaldo has beaten better defenders than me in the past," Tibi said. "Against all odds, we managed to play well and earn a good result. We’re a good squad and we won't be an easy opposition for any team in this group.”

Tibi notes that “the Irish have a disciplined team and we’ll give them all the respect they deserve.” Before flying to Belfast, Guttman called up Elyaniv Barda of Belgian club Racing Genk to replace Tomer Hemed, who misses Tuesday's game because of yellow cards.

Over the weekend, the chairman of the Israel Football Association, Avi Luzon, appeared downcast but strangely calm. “The atmosphere was wonderful: 40,000 fans rooting the players on, and in return they got one of the best performances at Ramat Gan for many years. Only one minute separated the disappointing draw from an outstanding victory," he said.

"Even it wasn't enough to take us to the World Cup finals in Brazil, it was a great boost for Israeli soccer. It’s a shame luck wasn’t with us. Why aren’t we ever the ones to score in the last minute?”

Heavy snow: This is the weather Israel's soccer team will have to contend with. Credit: Reuters
Portugal's Fabio Coentrao, right, and Israel's Maor Melikson during the 2014 World Cup qualifier in Israel, March 22, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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