Israel gave one of the national team’s worst performances in recent years as it played out a poor 1-1 draw with the underlings of Azerbaijan at the Ramat Gan Stadium on Saturday night.
European Qualifying Group F is now for Russia and Portugal’s taking after Israel effectively gave up on the race. Portugal tops the group with 17 points from eight games, followed by Russia with 15 points from seven games and Israel with 12 points from seven games. Northern Ireland is fourth, with six points, while Azerbaijan has five and Luxembourg three points.
Israel now goes into Tueday’s game in Saint Petersburg with heads bowed low.
National team coach Eli Guttman was forced to make a slew of changes to his preferred lineup following injuries to nine squad players, and he surprised the pundits by opting for the underperforming Itay Shechter of Hapoel Tel Aviv instead of in-form Genk forward Elyaniv Barda as the target man.
Azerbaijan, coached by that great German defender of the 1970s, Berti Vogts, came into this game with only its honor to save, having already missed out on qualification.
A paltry 15,000 fans were hardly enough to give the Ramat Gan Stadium a big-match atmosphere, and the first half was devoid of passion.
The game started slowly, with both midfields guilty of too many stray passes. For periods the game resembled schoolboys’ keep-me-up.
When Eitan Tibi managed to get a shot in after 18 minutes that shaved the Azeri goalpost following a Hen Ben Ezra corner, it gave hope of an improvement to come. And indeed Israel did begin to string some passes together going forward, only for the final pass or shot to prove ineffective.
On 35 minutes fill-in left back Ofir Davidzada of Hapoel Be’er Sheva ruined what could have been a dream debut by misfiring a volley attempt high and wide of the Azeri goal.
Israel was on top for most of the first half, but time and again the Azeris had no problem reading the hosts’ naïve attacks.
The second half opened with a rare chance as Tal Ben Haim’s astute pass cut through the moribund Azeri defense, leaving Eran Zahavi with only the goalkeeper to beat, but the Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder shot straight at the yellow-clad Azeri’s chest.
With the opposition defense weak at best, the Israelis kept pressing forward but repeatedly let themselves down, allowing the Azeris to launch a couple of forays upfield that threatened Dudu Aouate’s goal for the first time.
Then on the hour came the sucker punch: Azerbaihjan’s Rahid Amirguliyev picked up a ricocheted shot some 25 meters from goal and fired home as Aouate flapped at the ball to put the visitors 1-0 ahead.
Minutes later, substitute Elyaniv Barda hit the post twice in rapid succession, and it looked like this game was doomed to be a disaster.
At least the Israeli players seemed to think so, judging by their drab response - with less than half an hour left to save any chance of qualifying for the World Cup Finals in Rio in 2014, they resorted to niggling fouls and lazy passing.
Then 18 minutes from time a sigh of relief reverberated around the stadium as Schechter, who until then had been awful, deftly shot in Lior Refaelov’s well-placed cross from the left to level the score.
There should have been urgency in the Israelis’ game from then on – but alongside quality, urgency was sadly lacking at Ramat Gan last night and the game fizzled out into a boring draw.
“I have no excuses,” a visibly disappointed Guttman said after the game. “This is not a game I will want to take home with me. This was not what I planned.”
On Friday, Cristiano Ronaldo’s second-half hat trick gave Portugal a 4-2 victory at Windsor Park in a dramatic game that saw three players sent off. This result practically ended the Northern Irish chance of qualifying, despite their surprise win over Russia last month. Russia, meanwhile, brushed aside Luxembourg 4-1 to keep its campaign on track.