Israel 2 Russia 1: Golan hits heights to give hope to England
Rarely can a match of such importance have illustrated the tantalisingly thin margins between the twin impostors of footballing triumph and disaster.
In the 89th minute Dmitri Sychev, who should have been the next big thing in Russian football before careering off the rails, is sent through with a glorious opportunity to become a hero again by scoring the goal that will effectively take his country to the European Championship finals while condemning England and Steve McClaren to ignominy.
His shot clips the wrong side of a post and the score stays at 1-1, as it does at the start of added time when two unmarked visiting forwards lunge in vain at a tempting cross across the six-yard area. All England exhales and urges the Italian referee to end the torment, offering them the opportunity to qualify by beating Croatia on Wednesday. But at the other end of the pitch, where the ball has rarely been seen during the second half, one of Russia's three ponderous centre-backs from CSKA Moscow is caught in possession by Omer Golan, a lively substitute, who takes a return pass from his team's best player, Elyaniv Barda, and runs on to score.
It is a goal and a result of potentially far greater value to English football than the £50,000 Mercedes Golan is due to receive from Fred Done, a patriotic bookmaker. Chelsea's midfielder Joe Cole is due to shell out as well, having promised his club-mate Tal Ben Haim a free holiday if Israel prevented a Russian victory.
Ben Haim was disinclined to discuss the prospect on Saturday night, preferring to emphasise the Israelis' annoyance at some dismissive comments from Russia's Alexander Kerzhakov before the game and English talk of a possible cosy carve-up based on the dual interests of Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich.
"Roman is my boss but when I go on the pitch I am committed to my country and I must give my all," he said. "He has saved some money [in bonus payments] but I don't think he is happy. We didn't like it before the game that some players say that Israel are no good. As a footballer you don't like it that before the game people don't respect you. Once we put on Israel shirts we give 100 per cent and it was like that tonight. We get the result playing with many young, hungry players who were getting their chance."
The last point was an important one. Throwing so many inexperienced players into a team already lacking the injured captain, Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun, could have worked two ways. Luckily for England, those youngsters were desperate to prove themselves to the veteran coach Dror Kashtan, who said proudly: "We saw a hungry, fresh side that has a bright future ahead of it."
Eight of them had 10 caps or fewer but most seem destined to earn plenty more. Kashtan found the right formation by using Tamir Cohen, the son of the former Liverpool player Avi, as one of two holding midfielders behind a line of three bright young attacking players with Ben Sahar, the Chelsea boy on loan to Queen's Park Rangers, as the principal striker. Barak Itzhaki regularly drifted in off the right flank, supplying the pass from which Barda scored the early opening goal. When Itzhaki stayed wide there was a surprising amount of space behind the wing-backs in Guus Hiddink's 3-5-1-1 system.
Hiddink has also been changing the guard since dismissing the possibility of becoming Sven Goran Eriksson's successor 18 months ago and taking the Russian coach's job instead. His squad may be ahead of schedule, but after beating England 2-1 with a second-half revival last month they were in pole position in Group E, only to stall within sight of the chequered flag. "The first goal, given away by our midfield and defence, was so early that we had to play a very difficult game," Hiddink said. "We were then dominating but the Israelis are a defence-orientated team and they fought hard."
That defence was hard-pressed throughout the second half as the Russian captain, Andrei Arshavin, who is believed to be a target for Newcastle United, began to run the game, regularly feeding Yuri Zhirkov down the left. But Roman Pavlychenko, the Spartak Moscow striker who had destroyed England as a second-half substitute in Moscow, was less effective and limped off soon after the interval.
His replacement, Sychev, missed the opportunity to capitalise on a deserved equalising goal by Diniyar Bilyaletdonov and Israel's outstanding home record – one defeat, by Croatia, in seven years – looked under serious threat, whether the viewer was in Tel Aviv or at the England squad's hotel in Watford. Then Golan dramatically reached new heights with only his second international goal in 22 games to offer England the prospect of salvation.
"We must get a little bit more streetwise and not give presents," Hiddink said. Cole and Done are delighted to do so and will not be concerned about Hiddink's bravado about Wednesday's game, which England must lose to put the Russians through.
"I expect Croatia will play a fully committed game at Wembley," he said, "and if you dare to do that, you can win. I expect Croatia to win."
Israel (4-4-1-1): Aouate (Deportivo La Coruña); Shpungin (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Ben Haim (Chelsea), Keinan (Maccabi Haifa), Ziv; Itzhaki, Alberman (all Beitar), Cohen (Maccabi Netyana), Buzaglo (Bnei Sakhnin); Barda (Genk); Ben Sahar (Queen's Park Rangers). Substitutes: Ben Shushan (Beitar) for Itzhaki, 62; Ohayon (Winterthur) for Buzaglo, 63; Golan (Maccabi Petah Tikva) for Ben Sahar, 64.
Russia (3-5-1-1): Gabulov (Krasnodar); V Berezutsky, Ignashevich, A Berezutsky (all CSKA); Anyukov (Zenit), Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Zyryanov (Zenit), Bilyaletdinov (Lokomotiv), Zhirkov (CSKA); Arshavin (Zenit); Pavyluchenko (Spartak). Substitutes: Torbinsky (Spartak) for Semshov, 30; Sychev (Lokomotiv) for Pavlyuchenko, 52; Pogrebnyak (Zenit) for V Berezutski, 68.
Referee: S Farino (Italy)
Man of the match: Barda.