Germany, Spain, Holland … and ISRAEL?


The last two rounds of World Cup qualification in Europe have thrown up a predictable list of traditional powers dominating their groups.

Israel have not qualified for the finals since 1970

Israel have not qualified for the finals since 1970

Germany have twice as many points as their nearest challengers.

The Dutch are seven points ahead of second placed Hungary.

Spain’s win in Paris over France silenced the doubters and reclaimed the World and European Champions top spot.

Other lesser but traditional powers such as England, Italy and Russia seem on their way to winning their group or at least a place in the play-off round.

One traditional power not mentioned above is Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

Portugal lie third in Group Six behind leaders Russia and second place Israel. Yes, Israel.

The tiny Asian state forced to play in the more difficult European section due to the hostility of its Arab neighbours are in danger of beating out the Portuguese to that second place and a potential play-off round.

Yet it all started off very poorly for the side managed by Eli Guttman.

They could only draw away to minnows Azerbaijan. In contrast, Portugal won there on Tuesday. Four days later, the Russians visited them at the Ramat Gan Stadium and crushed them 0-4.

With one point out of six, the Israelis looked unlikely to add to their sole World Cup finals appearance of 1970.

Visiting Luxembourg seemed an easier challenge and they hurdled it with a 0-6 victory in front of just 2,631 Luxembourgois and perhaps the staff of the various Israeli embassies within a stone’s throw of Luxembourg City. Tomer Hemed scored a hat-trick. He plays his league football in for Real Mallorca in Spain where he has Mexican striker Giovani dos Santos as a team mate. The side’s keeper Dudu Aouate also represents both Israel and Mallorca,

To put Israel’s 0-6 win in context, a Portugal side containing Ronaldi and Nani struggled to win 1-2 there with Ronaldo scoring the equaliser after his side actually trailed. One look at their starting XI that day magnifies the excellence of Israel’s win to some degree:

Rui Patricio, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Fábio Coentrão, Joao Pereira, Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho, Raul Meireles, Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo, Hélder Postiga.

Israel though only scored half as many when Luxembourg traveled to Tel Aviv in October but the good news came in Porto where Portugal could only draw 1-1 with Northern Ireland. Suddenly, Israel and Portugal were level.

Last Friday, the two met in Tel Aviv and the home side were just seconds away from a famous and vital 3-2 win when Portugal equalised late through Real Madrid’s Fabio Coentrao. The Israelis had trailed 0-1 and come back to lead 3-1.

Most thought Coentrao’s stoppage time equaliser had ended their hopes of snagging second place away from Portugal but three days later, they emerged from Belfast, 0-2 winners.

Belfast is however the sole roadblock in the Portuguese way to second place as they have the rest of their matches at home. Russia and more importantly Israel visit there. The October 11th meeting at the Estadio Algarve may be crucial if Israel can hang in until then.

The Israelis host Azerbaijan and must take all three points before visiting 100% Russia where anything would be a bonus. After the Algarve meeting comes their final match, a winnable prospect at home to Northern Ireland.

FIFA rules separate teams on equal points by goal difference, as opposed to Major League Soccer’s head-to-head so those six goals in Luxembourg could prove crucial if we arrive at the final day with points level.

The final day when Israel host the Northern Irish and Portugal host Luxembourg could turn out to be a race for goals if the sides start equal on points.

Should the Israelis make the play-offs though, FIFA have another problem. They may have to seed the World Cup draw to keep Israel away from any Arab nation, emerging from the Asian zone, who may refuse to play them.

Of the sides likely to qualify, Japan, Australia, Uzbekistan and South Korea would be no problem. Moderate Jordan is unlikely to risk FIFA contempt over pacifying the Arab world either. However Oman and worst of all Iran are not out of the running yet.

Between then and now lies the relative tranquility of the Algarve – and Belfast.

Group Stage 2012 – Group Six
Russia 4 4 0 0 8 12
Israel 6 3 2 1 7 11
Portugal 6 3 2 1 5 11
N Ireland 5 0 3 2 -4 3
Azerbaijan 6 0 3 3 -6 3
Luxembourg 5 0 2 3 -10 2


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