Inspired Israel falls short against rock-solid Italy

Heavy underdogs Israel produce excellent performance in loss to soccer giants Italy, providing hope for long-term future.

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Shai Landesman, | updated: 23:46

Italy celebrates one of their goals as a dejected Beram Kayal (8) walks away.
Italy celebrates one of their goals as a dejected Beram Kayal (8) walks away.
Photo: Flash 90

Israel's national soccer team embarked on what promises to be a supremely difficult World Cup qualification campaign when it hosted Italy in Haifa's Sammy Ofer stadium tonight (Monday).

Drawn in a group with world soccer giants Spain and Italy, and needing to finish in at least second place in order to have any chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, expectations are low for once entering a qualification campaign.

Traditionally, pre-campaign assessments and hopes (some would call them wishful thinking), put Israel with a reasonable chance of qualifying, causing expectations to skyrocket and thus putting immense pressure on the players and manager.

The tough draw for this campaign, however, in a group which also includes Albania, (no slouches themselves), Macedonia and minnows Lichtenstein, means that expectations are very low, hopefully allowing new national team manager Elisha Levy to try to build for the long-term, trying out younger players and playing more pressure-free soccer.

Game summary: The Israelis opened the game very well, pressing high against experienced Italy defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and exhibiting willingness to go forward, led by Captain Eran Zehavi.

Italy strikes hard

Things were looking good, until a small slip in concentration in the 14th minute cost Israel dearly, Paris St. Germain star Marco Veratti picked the ball up in midfield, powered through Nir Bitton's attempted tackle, and passed it left to Luca Antonelli. With the Israeli defense on its back foot, it was a simple matter for the AC Milan winger to play a simple pass in to striker Graziano Pelle (who plays in the Chinese league with Zehavi) who had a simple tap-in for the first goal. 1-0 Italy.

Things went from bad to worse in the 31st minute. Giacomo Bonaventura found himself in a one-on-one situation on the left side of the Israel penalty area against Israel right-back Ben Bitton, and went right by him, forcing Bitton to foul him. Antonio Candreva easily converted the ensuing penalty, slotting the ball by Dudu Goresh. 2-0 Italy.

A new hope

Just as all seemed lost, Israel found its moment of inspiration, and a spectacular one at that. In the 35th minute, Maccabi Tel Aviv's often erratic winger Tal Ben-Haim stole the ball in a favorable position and picked up the ball in his favorite position in the corner of the penalty area. What followed was magic. Ben-Haim mustered a sublime touch, chipping the ball smoothly and gracefully over Gianluigi Buffon, Italy's living legend of a goalkeeper, and into the back of the net. 2-1 Italy.

Goresh was forced to make an excellent save to keep out a Pelle header in the 45th minute, ending a thrilling first half.

Buffon's talents were on full display in the 51st minute, as went down to his left at full stretch to keep out a powerful effort by Nir Bitton.

Four minutes later, Chiellini fouled the indefatigable Tomer Hemed, earning a second yellow card, and thus a red. Italy went down to 10 men, filling the partisan crowd with hope and enthusiasm.

In what would be considered a stunning turn of events before the game, it was Israel who started mounting increased pressure on the Italian goal. Buffon had to make an absolutely spectacular save on a low Zehavi shot after a rebound in the 67th.

Heartbreak

Israel dominated and pressed for a goal, playing some inspired soccer along the way, but heartbreak ensued. In the 83rd minute, the only attack the Italians mustered in the second half ended in a goal, as newly introduced striker Ciro Immobile received the ball from Pelle at the edge of the area and fired a low bullet past Goresh, taking the wind out of Israel's sails. 3-1 Italy.

As the game ended at that score, the Israeli players can go home feeling very proud of their performance against a vastly superior opponent. Soccer fans throughout the country will feel that their disappointment is tempered by pride over the brave and bold performance, and optimism for the future in the new path upon which Israeli soccer embarked tonight.








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