Israel's hopes of making a major tournament for the first time since Mexico in 1970 received a near-fatal blow on Friday, with a 1-0 home loss to Greece. Sotiris Ninis scored the only goal after an hour to effectively leave the group as a two-horse race between Greece, who have 17 points from their seven matches, and Croatia who beat Malta to reach 16 points.
Israel has played a game more than Greece and Croatia and remains third on 13 points. It retains only a slim theoretical chance to claim one of the top two places in the group. Despite a full house at Bloomfield, the Israeli team seemed lackluster for the full 90 minutes, and rarely came close to scoring despite the game being billed as a must-win.
The Israeli team flew to Croatia last night for Tuesday's qualifier. Avi Luzon, the Israel Football Association chairman, said to Haaretz: "Like all Israelis I'm deeply disappointed. I believed and hoped that we could beat Greece. I still believe that the national team could and should have won the game. We have good players and a good coach, but unfortunately, it wasn't enough this time." Luzon declared that Luis Fernandez will remain Israeli coach until all the qualifiers are completed: "We always said we would decide only after the campaign is over. We have a game against Croatia on Tuesday, and we must remain focused."
Fernandez said to the official IFA site: "We were very hopeful before the game against Greece because it was a wonderful chance. Our will just wasn't enough. It was very hot on Friday, and that gave our rival an edge on us, because they were sitting back and waiting for our mistake. We had difficulties up front, not enough creativity. We also weren't fast enough, and didn't have enough opportunities. Personally I'm very disappointed, as we all are."
Fernandez added: "I, too, have to take the blame for our loss. I'm responsible for all decisions, but I still have full confidence in these players. I still trust them. When I came here Israel was ranked around 50 in the FIFA rankings, and now we're in the whereabouts of the top 30. Such progress doesn't happen just like that. We're still building a team. When these players gain more experience we'll succeed more. As long as I'm still wanted here, I'll stay."
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