Israel kept its slim chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with a barely deserved 2-0 victory over Northern Ireland in Belfast last night.
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Despite having been second best for most of the game, Israel’s forward line produced two real moments of quality in the final quarter of an hour. And unlike the resilient but profligate Northern Ireland team, it buried both those chances.
The result keeps Eli Guttman’s squad in second place in Group F of the qualifying tournament, ahead of Portugal on goal difference and one point adrift of Russia, which has played one game less.
Israel made the brighter start of the two teams and was unlucky not to make the breakthrough after just four minutes, when Itay Shechter struck the post from inside the penalty area. The Israelis continued to pile the pressure on their hosts in the opening minutes, but Northern Ireland’s defense, led by Jonny Evans, stood strong.
After 19 minutes, however, the home team created its first chance of the game, when Steven Davis spread a pass inside the Israeli penalty box that Martin Paterson failed to make his own.
Northern Ireland created a flurry of chances around the half-hour mark, but Chris Brunt, Paterson, Davis and Kyle Lafferty all were denied by a double save by Dudu Aouate and some desperate Israeli defending.
A largely eventless second half came to life in the 77th, however, when some neat passing by Israel on the edge of the Northern Ireland penalty box ended with Lior Refaelov smashing home. Israel put the result beyond doubt eight minutes later, after some excellent work by Shechter down the left flank. The Swansea City striker passed to an unmarked Eden Ben Basat, who lashed an unstoppable shot passed the Northern Irish goalie.
The team that wins the group qualifies automatically for next summer’s finals, with the eight best runners-up going into a playoff for the four remaining places. Israel’s last three games are at home to Azerbaijan and away to Russia and Portugal.
Earlier, under-pressure Portugal shrugged off the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo by securing a 2-0 victory over 10-man Azerbaijan in Baku thanks to goals from Bruno Alves and Hugo Almeida.
The win puts an end to a five-game winless streak for Portugal.