Soccer / In Crete, Teams Brace for Titan Clash

Israel will tonight have perhaps its last chance in the current campaign to qualify for the 2010 World Cup by finishing in first place in its qualifying group, and return to the biggest soccer event after an absence of nearly 40 years, when it takes on Greece in Crete.

Four days after the teams drew 1-1 at Ramat Gan, Israel will be with its back against the wall tonight: If it loses it will almost certainly not finish first in its group, while a draw or victory will keep it in the race for the spot, which promises qualification.

"The Greeks will play offensively," national team coach Dror Kashtan told the media yesterday. "They are a very good team, a team that has participated in World Cups and a former European champion, and we have a deep respect for them."

Meanwhile, the Israeli camp let out a collective sigh of relief when it became clear that Yossi Benayoun has completely recovered from the injury which had plagued him for a month and put him in doubt for the last encounter. Benayoun played for 77 minutes at Ramat Gan before being carried off on a stretcher after he pulled a muscle. But the Liverpool midfielder and star of the national team seemed to have fully recuperated yesterday, participating in the entire training session.

Defensive midfielder Gal Alberman, another key player for Israel who was rumored to have sustained an injury during practice, also looked in good shape at yesterday's training session, and will tonight try to repeat his outstanding performance in the previous match against Greece.

Greece's coach Otto Rehhagel paid his respects to his Israeli opponents yesterday, saying they "should not be underestimated." The German-born veteran pointed out Benayoun and striker Ben Sahar as the two biggest threats on the Israeli team.

Greek midfielder Kostas Katsouranis, whose suspension for yellow cards prevented him from playing in the last match against Israel (see related article), said he was confident that his team would come out on top tonight. "Israel will bulk up its defense and we'll have to be patient to breach it, as I believe we shall," he told the press.

Yesterday a couple of hundred of protesters rallied near the Israeli team's hotel to protest against the country's policies. Greek police and security forces have established a high profile on the island ahead of the match.