Guttman’s Strategy: Fortress Israel

Defense against Portugal will be top priority for national coach in wake of drubbing by Russia.

Eli Guttman has gone through many ups and downs since Israel’s national team fell 4-0 to Russia in September. The first conclusion from that game was that he should play three central defenders in the meeting with Portugal, which takes place today ‏(kick-off 2:45 P.M., live broadcast on Channel 1‏). Israel indeed attempted that strategy last month in a friendly against Finland and won 2-1.

Guttman, the head coach, said many things yesterday in a press conference, but his most importance sentence was brief: The test is in the results. He knows well that all his decisions, some of which are controversial and others of his he rapidly changed, will be evaluated based on today’s result.

When team practices began at Shfayim on Monday, Guttman and assistant coach Yossi Abukasis came with a plan to use three central defenders: Tal Ben Haim, Eitan Tibi and Dekel Keinan. After consulting with coaches of the league teams his players belong to, Guttman focused almost solely on defense. His approach is to take whatever the other team dishes out, and the rest is a bonus.

Guttman also wanted a player who could combine the roles of central defender and midfielder. He looked for someone talented, technical and primarily smart. He decided to gamble on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Shiran Yeini.

“Shiran Yeini gives the feeling that he is responsible and can help the defenders when needed, as well as push the team forward into attack,” Guttman said.

At the last moment, Guttman also decided to go for Celtic’s Rami Gershon in the left back position, though he has only made a couple of appearances for the Scottish club this year. “He’s quick, he’s tall and can deal with Portugal’s tall players, and he can provide backup to the defenders, he being a defender too,” said Guttman in a closed meeting.

Despite all the superlatives he heaped on Avi Reikan after the Finnish friendly, Guttman decided to leave him on the bench.

The coach long ago decided to play midfielder Maor Melikson and striker Eden Ben Bassat. The places of Bibras Natkho as a defensive midfielder and Tomer Hemed up front were also clear to the coaching staff. However, a big question for Guttman was who would play alongside Natkho. This week he was sure Beram Kayal would be in the starting 11 then suddenly he opted for Eran Zahavi.

Guttman has a hard time shaking the memories from Hapoel Tel Aviv’s double-title season, and he prefers Zahavi although it’s clear he does not have the stamina to play a full 90 minutes, unlike Kayal, who is in good shape playing for Celtic. Guttman admires Zahavi’s good vision, the fact that he is more technical and that he poses a threat to the opponent’s goal.

Guttman told the press conference he is very relaxed, excited for his players, is enjoying every minute with them and most of all believes in them. “I am enjoying the press coverage, which I think is fair,” he said. “We’ll come to the game ready.”

He said the preparation for Portugal was exactly what it was for Luxembourg, with an emphasis on Portugal’s talent.

The coach attributed his changes since the Finland game to certain players getting injured or sick. “The most important consideration in the lineup is balance,” he noted. “The players are trained for changing strategy as the game progresses as needed. There’s a lineup and there’s a plan for substitutions. We have quality players. There are also players on the bench who can come on and determine the outcome of the game.”

‘I am here’

Yossi Benayoun, the team captain, is not in the starting 11. He knew when Guttman came that his role would not be what it once was, but he seems to have adjusted. If anyone still thinks Benayoun, who has been with the national team for 15 years, will announce his retirement after the next two games because of his diminished role, the captain sent a clear message that he has no intention of quitting even if he doesn’t play a single minute on the pitch.

“I am here, and that’s what is most important,” he said. “I always come to the national team, and even whether I get one minute or 90 minutes, I’m in the squad. I came to serve the team. I’m here to contribute both on and off the field.”

Guttman, who apparently didn’t like the media’s focus on Benayoun, spoke out to back up his captain. “Let me be open and tell you the whole truth,” he said. “I had a conversation with Yossi and told him that I didn’t call him up. He didn’t like the decision. He’s the captain of the national team. I showed him respect and held a few discussions with him. I told him that I have no doubt that his place is in the squad. The fact that I consult with Yossi Benayoun about the lineup says everything.”

Benayoun added that he is in good shape from handling players at Chelsea who are worth 30-40 million pounds, and the fact that after being sidelined with an injury for three months he is still part of the squad’s rotation is the biggest accomplishment of his career. 

Nir Keidar