BAKU, Azerbaijan - Israel played its first game of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign on Friday, and the feeling is already the same as we had during the Dror Kashtan and Luis Fernandez eras.
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Israel had to settle for a 1-1 with Group F rival Azerbaijan after the lower-ranked hosts equalized midway through the second half. With two precious points dropped, it seems hard to imagine that Israel will catch either Russia or Portugal for second place, unless one of them also trips up in Baku.
The draw was not surprising, but perhaps a little weird considering that Eli Guttman, Israel's head coach, guaranteed on the eve of the qualifier that the players knew exactly what they needed to do, that he had everything sorted out, and that there would not be any surprises.
That is what the coach said, yet moments before the opening whistle he replaced Hen Ezra with Gil Vermouth. Guttman explained that the moment he saw Azerbaijan's lineup, he wanted a better player on the right wing. "Yossi Benayoun and Ezra prefer to play on the left side, so I opened with Vermouth," he said.
It was a strange statement considering Benayoun has played every possible position on the national squad.
Later it looked like Guttman realized he was mistaken with his comments and became restless. He got very angry at his players during the match, especially when they left big gaps for Azerbaijan to exploit.
The game was scoreless after the first half. Guttman said he told his players at the break that if they wouldn't move the ball around more, they would not get any scoring opportunities.
Bibras Natcho finally got the scoring going in the 50th minute. However, Ruslan Abishov equalized in the 65th minute.
"The players put in a lot. I have no complaints with them," said Guttman. "We are still dreaming [of qualifying for Brazil], and we will do everything to play better on Tuesday against Russia."
However, some members of the team said yesterday that Guttman took the draw very hard, and withdrew into himself on the flight back to Israel.
The team held one practice in Baku yesterday before leaving Azerbaijan. Maharan Radi and Yossi Benayoun stood out, and Guttman will likely make roster changes ahead of Tuesday's match against Russia.
Benayoun: 'A real shame'
It's hard to ignore the lack of confidence with which the national squad played. Azerbaijan looked much more relaxed moving the ball around. Typically, Israel scored first and then conceded the equalizer. Some on the team complain that Guttman made belated substitutions - if Benayoun had entered earlier he would have boosted morale and perhaps contributed to a second goal.
The first substitution - Omer Darmari replacing Tomer Hemed - came just two minutes after the Azeris scored. One member of the squad said that when there is a player like Benayoun on the bench and the team is panicking, it's unclear why Guttman kept him there.
Benayoun entered the fray in the 74th minute, replacing Itay Shechter. He had warmed up at halftime but after Natcho's goal, Guttman made him the third option. Benayoun looked disappointed.
"We should have won. We're the better team," Benayoun said after the match. "After the first goal we should have scored another goal or two, or at least kept the same result. It's a real shame we lost two points here."
Benayoun said that if he has to prove he merits a place in the starting 11, he will just continue working hard to demonstrate his worth.