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Israel’s championship dreams reach a cul de sac in Slovenia

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Israel’s dream of reaching next year’s European Championship finals all but ended in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana on Monday, when their footballers conceded a third Slovenia goal to lose 3-2 agonisingly late in the game.
by LUKE ALFRED | Sep 12, 2019

One-nil down at half-time, Israel stormed into a 2-1 lead 15 minutes into the second-half, before conceding an equaliser with hardly 20 minutes left on the clock. On the stroke of 90 minutes, slipshod defending allowed Benjamin Verbič to score Slovenia’s third, giving them a priceless 3-2 victory. This rendered Israel’s chances of qualification very slim indeed.

Ljubljana is a strange place for a campaign to grind to a halt because precious few know where it actually is. Many think Slovenia is Slovakia (the other half of what used to be called Czechoslovakia). Some even think it’s a generic state of the pan-European East – Croatia maybe, or even Bosnia.

In point of fact, Slovenia is the closest of the former Yugoslavia republics to the southern Austrian border, and is a thoroughly middle-European country of green meadows and clear mountain lakes. It is four hours by autobahn between Ljubljana and Vienna, and many Slovenian players play in either Austria or Hungary itself.

They might be difficult to find on a map, but they are not without football pedigree, or come-from-behind heart. Indeed, it was a good weekend for Slovenia because they beat log-leaders Poland 2-0 (also in Ljubljana) on Friday.

Two wins in five days catapulted them to second in the six-team group behind Poland, while Israel’s defeat at Slovenia’s hands, and their 1-1 draw with North Macedonia a couple of days before that, saw them plunge to fifth in the standings.

With four matches left to play, they have an outside mathematical chance of qualifying, but their hopes are hanging by a thread as thin as a shoelace.

History lessons aside, Israel played their part in what turned out to be a pulsating, end-to-end spectacle by two evenly matched sides. Although 1-0 down to a first-half Verbič goal, they were by no means out of it at the break. Manor Solomon, the young Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder, was always busy wide on the Israel right, and Shon Weissman, the Wolfsberger striker, was industrious alongside Eran Zahavi upfront.

Clearly Israel’s Austrian coach, Andreas Herzog, said something to inspire his team at half-time, because the visitors came out with renewed intent at the beginning of the second half. Their skipper, Partizan’s Bibras Natcho (sometimes spelled “Natkho”), squared matters on 50 minutes, but the best was yet to come.

At 63 minutes, the Slovenians failed to clear their lines, although they didn’t look as if they were in any immediate danger. How wrong they were. The ball fell to Zahavi, who strode a couple of steps forward before rifling a shot from full on 30 metres as it flew off keeper Jan Oblak’s hand into the top right-hand corner of the net. The beautifully hit strike took Zahavi’s tally in the qualifiers to nine overall.

At this stage, Israel were full value for their lead. They were bossing the midfield, and it looked as if a rare away win might be theirs for the taking. The home crowd fell silent, and it was even money as to whether Israel extended her lead or whether Slovenia, who created chances from beginning to end, would equalise.

In what was turning out to be a thoroughly captivating game that should have been watched by far more people than it actually was, the Slovenians came storming back, despite being a goal down. Roman Bezjak, who plays professionally for Apoel in Israel, then grabbed an equaliser to make it 2-2 with just over 20 minutes left to play.

Israel were still chasing the win at this point, throwing their full backs forward and so leaving their central defenders, who looked jittery at the best of times, exposed. Ofir Marciano in the Israel goal made not one but two and then three remarkable saves during the final 15 minutes and then, heartbreakingly, Verbič stole in to grab the header that led to his second goal of the match to win Slovenia the game.

Israel might not have deserved to win but they certainly didn’t deserve to lose. It was a painful way to end an entertaining and action-packed game that flowed endlessly from goalmouth to goalmouth. While Marciano was excellent between the posts for Israel, Natcho, wearing the number 6 shirt, was a calm, stabilising influence in the midfield.

Israel’s assignment in round seven of the qualifiers takes place next month, when they play two games in the space of five days in the middle of the month. First they travel to Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadion for an encounter with Austria, who they beat 4-2 in Haifa in March thanks to a Zahavi hat-trick. Five days later, they meet Latvia at the Turner Stadium in Beersheba, an opportunity for maximum points and an improved goal difference against a team who are rooted to the bottom of the standings in sixth position.

All of this might, however, be academic, should Israel come away from the Austrian trip empty-handed. As it is, their European dream is looking very wobbly indeed.

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