'We will play to win against Russia,' insists Israel coach play for victory over Russia
It is unusual for a manager at any level of football solemnly to announce that his team's forthcoming match is not a fix. But then the situation in Group E of the European Championship qualifiers is doing strange things to men. So yesterday afternoon at the Ramat Gan stadium, where Israel and Russia can decide England's fate between them, the home team's veteran coach Dror Kashtan walked into a media conference and began proceedings by announcing that his team would, in fact, be trying their hardest to win.
"We read about irrelevant speculations," he said. "It's probably speculation to cause some kind of atmosphere that doesn't exist. We are proud Israelis. We expect our fans to support the national team and be proud of us. I'm sure the players are aware of that factor. I'm absolutely certain we will do everything we can to play positive football over these coming 90 minutes to win the game. We go out there to play our best over 90 minutes, and if we get a victory that can score us a point for future Fifa rankings."
For Israel, there is nothing other than pride and that deteriorating world ranking (down four places to No 37) to play for. For Russia, however, the stakes could hardly be higher, and it is the closeness of the two footballing communities in the shape of benevolent Russian Jewish figures like the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich that has caused some English foreheads to crease in concern.
Their worries were not eased when Israel's goalkeeping coach, the former USSR international Alexander Ouvarov, was quoted on a leading Israeli sports website earlier this week as saying that he wanted his country of birth to qualify for next summer's finals. The item caused considerable embarrassment here and was quickly withdrawn from the website. Kashtan felt obliged to say of Ouvarov: "His kids are serving this country, his daughter is serving in the army and he loves the country. He gets excited every single time the national anthem is played. It shows his determination and commitment to Israel."
Meanwhile, just as England players (or at least those in the team) were queueing up this week to say what a fine fellow Steve McClaren was, so members of Israel's squad have been insisting that they will be giving the Hebrew equivalent of "110 per cent". As Mandy Rice Davies might have put it: "They would, wouldn't they?"
To be fair, there will be players with something to prove to Kashtan. After the dismally limp performance in a 3-0 defeat at Wembley in September, there were eight changes for the next game, a 1-0 loss in Croatia that mathematically ended any hopes of finishing in the top two. Only Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun and the central defensive pair of Chelsea's Tal Ben Haim and the experienced Shimon Gershon were retained, as a number of players in their early- and mid-20s were brought in with an eye to the future. Now Gershon, like Benayoun, is injured, and will be replaced by Dekel Keinan. Among the newcomers are Tamir Cohen, 23, the son of the former Liverpool player Avi Cohen, winning only his second cap and the Belgium-based striker Elyaniv Barda, who earned his third. Even younger and hoping to be involved against Russia in the absence of Benayoun is the attacking midfielder Maor Buzaglo from Bnei Sakhnin, the first Arab team to win the Israeli Cup.
Russia, meanwhile, do not arrive until today, from a warm-weather training camp in Cyprus that should prepare them more than adequately for the mid-20s temperatures of Tel Aviv. "Israel are a very strong opponent that can upset the mood of any side," their coach Guus Hiddink said yesterday. "We still have a lot of work to do."
The Russians will benefit from considerable expatriate support tomorrow. Asked if the game was a sell-out, an Israeli spokesman replied: "Yes. But we have not sold it." Unlike the lugubrious Kashtan, he had a smile on his face.