The last time the national team played was in the beginning of June in the United States, against Honduras, in a stadium packed with enthusiastic Jews. On Wednesday, against Ukraine in Kiev, the atmosphere will be different. This is the last friendly before the two crucial World Cup qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Russia. This campaign might have been much better if only the national team had beaten Portugal last March, instead of conceding an equalizer in the last minute.
While the players still talk about that heartbreaking goal, coach Eli Guttman is looking forward, and has recently change his declared concept as to the national team. When first appointed Guttman said he wouldn't call up players that aren't playing for their teams, but now he decided to stick to the players he believes in, without taking into account their status at their teams.
Thus, for example, Yossi Benayoun is in the squad despite still not knowing where he'll play next season. Apart from preventing a field day for the media, if Benayoun wasn't called up, Guttman believes that his captain still has what to contribute to the national team, even if he isn't a starter.
Dudu Awatte's unconvincing form for Mallorca last season won't harm his position as first goalkeeper and Tal Ben Haim's joining Standard Liege solved Guttman a serious headache. Together with Yuval Shpungin, Eitan Tibi and Rami Gershon, the defense is expected to continue its run from the last games. Bibras Natkho is a sure starter in midfield, but a final decision as to his partners is expected only on Tuesday. Shiran Yeini is expected to fill the spot between the back four and midfield, where he excelled against Portugal and Northern Ireland, and Lior Refaelov, Maor Melikson and Maharan Radi, are also possible openers. Since Tomer Hemed is injured, Eden Ben Bassat will probably start together with another striker, Itay Shechter or Shimon Abuhatzira. While the former is traditionally given a chance even when in poor form, the latter is playing very well lately.
During this trip, Guttman is concentrating on theoretic material: he prepared presentations with data concerning Russia and Azerbaijan's players. Guttman attaches importance to the Ukraine game, but he is focusing on the real thing, the two qualifiers. And perhaps, more than anything else, Guttman wants his players to jell, both as a soccer team and as a social group that is united in the cause.