Soccer / Euro 2008 Qualifying / Israel Has a Tough Croatian Nut to Crack

Yossi Benayoun, captain of the national soccer team, spoke to a lot of his teammates yesterday, two days before their Euro 2008 qualifying match against Croatia in Zagreb. Benayoun, who is aware of the crucial nature of the match, is very nervous about a second disgrace following a 3-0 drubbing against England at Wembley Stadium last month, and his primary concern has to do with the fact that a large portion of the players who will be in action tomorrow are new and making their national team debut.

"It is true that we are talking about a very difficult match," said Benayoun, who wants very much to leave his own impression on coach Dror Kashtan's campaign. "Some things are very challenging and we are talking about young players. Who knows, maybe I will make such a great slalom through the defense and score a goal and win the match, and then we will stay in the picture [for a spot in the Euro 2008 finals] until the very end. We will beat Russia and Macedonia. We will surprise everyone and advance. It is not a figment of the imagination."

Then Benayoun moved past the actual result. He told the players that he didn't want "to give a performance that would embarrass us like in England. Restore Israeli soccer's respect despite the gaps in talent level between Croatia and Israel. We have young and talented players and I am sure that in the future, in the next campaign, they will be better because of the experience that they are getting now."

Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon is aware of the crises that Kashtan is facing with regard to players who are unavailable. Luzon knows that with the current squad his ability to maneuver is very limited and the present reality will be taken into account in the future.

"In the middle of November, I will sit down and make decisions regarding Israel's national team," Luzon said. "Why do I have to hurry now? Every day, things change. At the end of the campaign, I will sit down and go over everything that happened during this campaign and decide quietly, without pressure, on the best course of action. It is impossible to ignore the distress at the national team today regarding the injury problem. These are not the ideal conditions and I can't remember a similar situation in the past."

Bilic's problem

The primary difficulty facing Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach, ahead of tomorrow's match against Israel is not related to his tactical lineup, but is instead his attempt to convince his players and the Croatian soccer public that Israel is not a Middle Eastern version of Estonia.

This is a tough task all by itself, primarily if you take into account the opinion expressed by one of Bilic's senior assistants, Robert Prozinsky, who said after watching a video of Israel's match against England at Wembley Stadium, "3-0 is a natural result against a squad like this." Bilic is hoping for a similar victory on his way to qualifying for Euro 2008, and the crowd will be expecting a concert from his team.

Midfielder Luka Modric is of the opinion that there will be no problem repeating Croatia's 4-3 victory in Ramat Gan last year, and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa does expect to be especially bothered by Israel's forwards. Croatia has never lost an official match at home, including to teams better than Israel.

It is hard to say that Bilic has not been sleeping the past few nights because two of his forwards, Mladan Petric and Bosko Balaban, are not fit for the match. The only decision that he is thinking about is whether to open with a traditional 4-4-2 formation, with Eduardo da Silva and Ivica Olic up front, or to go with a slightly ingenious 4-2-3-1 setup with two rear midfielders, Modric and Jerko Leko in front of them, and da Silva as a third attacking midfielder right behind a single forward (Olic).

A further question mark concerns the status of midfielder Darijo Srna's leg. Bilic made it clear that if Srna is not "100 percent fit," 19-year-old Ivan Rakitic would take his place. Srna himself is convinced that Croatia is several levels better than Israel, and "will win easily," with or without him.

Bilic asked his players to "discover patience," even if they do not succeed in scoring against Nir Davidovic in the early stage of the match. The Croatian coach is certain that Israel will focus on defending for most of the match and try to strike on breaks.

Bilic emphasized Pini Balili's speed and Yossi Benayoun's ingenuity to his players, while he does not plan to mark Israel's captain one-on-one.

Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb will be filled with approximately 35,000 fans. German Wolfgang Stark will be the referee.