Soccer / World Cup Qualifiers

Guttman’s Moment of Truth Approaches

Ahead of the crunch games against Azerbaijan in Ramat Gan on Saturday and against Russia in Moscow three days later, Israel’s national coach faces a rash of injuries to his squad.

Once these two games are over, we’ll know which was strongest: national team coach Eli Guttman’s “game plan” or the rash of injuries in the squad.

There can be no doubt that these two games are critical if Israel is to qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, and in order to properly examine the team’s preparations for them one should take a step back – to the beginning of the qualification campaign. Guttman himself divides his reign into two periods, the first of which he’d rather forget: the two opening games of the campaign against Azerbaijan away and Russia at home, a disappointing draw and a resounding defeat, respectively.

The coach, who had spent a lot of time compiling dossiers for his “game plan for the national team,” was disappointed in the extreme. He admitted after the 4-0 drubbing by Russia that his plan had been an utter failure, even going so far as to take all the blame on himself.

Then came the two wins against Luxembourg. After the 6-0 away victory a satisfied smile was plastered across Guttman’s face. “That’s my team – they played the way I wanted them to,” he gushed, then went on to utter the sentence that says it all: “Today Eli Guttman began to work as the national team coach.”

After that came the important 2-0 away victory against Northern Ireland, and Guttman began preparing in earnest for the two crunch games that will decide the campaign’s outcome. He knows a couple of good results would keep the campaign alive – but he also knows that these three critical days could kill it off.

For that reason, Guttman and his assistant Yossi Abuksis closely scrutinized the performances of the Israelis who play on European teams. They traveled from country to country, trying to find the roster that could keep Israel in the qualification picture.

The coach thought of everything – except the rash of injuries that has beset the squad, ruining his plans. Or perhaps not.

Note how the injuries have affected Guttman’s lineup. He based the team around a two-man attack comprising Tomer Hemed and Eden Ben-Bassat. Now both are sidelined and out of the squad. In defense, after trying out a hatful of players in various positions – and suffering a series of disappointments in the process – he has finally managed to put together a steady rearguard formation: Yuval Spungin, Tal Ben Haim, Eitan Tibi and Rami Gershon. But then, a week and a half before the real thing, Gershon was sidelined by injury, and so was his natural replacement, Avi Reikan.

Ben Haim, meanwhile, is barely playing at Standard Liege.

In midfield, the coach waited for Celtic’s Beram Kayal to recover from injury, then immediately reinstated him for last month’s friendly against Ukraine (a 2-0 defeat). What happened next? You guessed it: Kayal was injured while playing for Celtic and dropped out of the squad.

Meanwhile, Guttman was keeping his fingers crossed in hope that team captain Yossi Benayoun, a free agent after being released by Chelsea, would sign to a team and begin playing regularly so that he could be brought back into the squad. But at the time of writing Benayoun still hadn’t found a team to play for – so Guttman decided to leave the veteran midfielder out of his squad.

Even if Benayoun had found a club, that wouldn’t have guaranteed him a place on the national team. Would signing a contract make him a better player? After all, he hasn’t played a full game for months, and three or four training sessions can’t make up for that. Of course not. This time Benayoun’s omission from the squad barely made a ripple in the media. No more stories about how his influence is essential for building team spirit. Though it does seem a little strange that Guttman forfeited the services of a player he admits admiring and consulting with, and whom he previously called an essential part of the squad.

I met Guttman last week at the national team’s training camp in Shefayim, and he told me: “That’s it. I’ve decided to do what I think is best – not to listen to anyone and to follow my own mind.”

His remark took me back to two weeks before, to the post-game press conference in Kiev. Guttman spoke at length about his captain and a number of times said “I’ve decided to do what I think is best.”

It should be recalled that when Guttman was hired to coach the national team he was a consensus choice, but he was widely criticized after the letdown of the opening two games. He was accused of making mistakes and of taking decisions under great media pressure, including his drastic team reshuffle before the 4-0 disaster against Russia.

Another example of his zigzagging was his declaration that he would not call up players who were not getting regular games for their (European) clubs, followed by a swift retreat when he realized that was impractical. He was also castigated for preferring Hapoel Tel Aviv players and for abandoning his much-loved 4-4-2 formation.

But he also scored some points. For one, he admitted his mistakes in the first two games. And with the exception of the draw in Azerbaijan, in terms of results Guttman has achieved everything expected of him. The defeat to Russia was expected, if not the score line. And the 3-3 home draw with Portugal (which was so nearly a victory) was an excellent result.

Also in his favor is his success in building a defense that can be relied on – the downfall of many of his predecessors. He also believed in Itay Shechter even though the forward spent most of last season warming the substitutes’ bench at Swansea, yet it was exactly that rusty Schechter who produced the victory against Northern Ireland. He built an effective offense around two players who nobody else in Israel took seriously but who scored against Luxembourg, Portugal and Northern Ireland. He even brought in unfancied Shiran Yeini of Maccabi Tel Aviv and surprisingly included him in the team against Portugal to shadow Cristiano Ronaldo, to great success.

“Six points from these two games and we’re top of the table,” one of his assistants told me this week. “Six points and Guttman is the king of Israel.”

Three points at home against Azerbaijan on Saturday and another point (or three) in Russia next Tuesday and everyone will forgive Guttman for his past mistakes. How fitting that would be ahead of Yom Kippur.

Sefi Margiso
Sharon Bukov