In narrowly failing to qualify from a challenging UEFA EURO 2008 qualification group, Israel suggested they could be a force to be reckoned with when the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ came around. Though plagued by inconsistency, the Israelis more than held their own against the formidable trio of England, Russia and Croatia, coming within a point of second place and a ticket to the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

Yet, having raised expectations of a strong showing in the race to South Africa 2010, the men in blue and white have struggled to string results together in their section, where they lie fourth behind Switzerland, Greece and Latvia. Once again, Dror Kashtan's side have been hampered in their bid to move up to the next level by an all too familiar lack of consistency.

Their last two outings provide a perfect illustration of that. Four days after going down 1-0 at home to the Latvians, the unpredictable Middle Easterners responded with a seven-goal rout of Luxembourg. That result provided some indication as to why they lie as high as 22nd on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and also revived their flagging hopes of making their first appearance at the finals since Mexico 1970.

Often the bridesmaids and all too rarely the bride, the Israelis have long been pressing claims for a lasting place in the European elite without ever quite doing enough. That could be about to change, however, as their recent ascent up the global ladder shows.

After slipping from an all-time high of 15th in November 2008 and holding a place in the top 20 from August 2008 to March 2009, Israel are on the up and up again. And September's climb of three places should give them all the encouragement they need ahead of their final Group 2 engagements, at home to Moldova and away to leaders Switzerland.

We've earned this position. We've won games, played well and worked our way up, but we need to build on these good performances.

Elyaniv Barda on Israel's standing of 22nd on the Ranking

As key forward Elyaniv Barda correctly predicted in an exclusive interview with a few weeks ago, that trip to face the Swiss "could be a crucial tie in the battle for second place." The Genk man symbolises the tremendous potential Israel possess as well as their ambition to return to the biggest competition of them all.

"We've earned this position," he added in reference to their rise up the Ranking. "We've won games, played well and worked our way up, but we need to build on these good performances and the best way of doing that is by finishing second." With his hat-trick against Luxembourg last month, Barda has certainly made his contribution to achieving that objective.

A talented, balanced unit
Those hopes of genuine success are based on a gifted side featuring a blend of youngsters, older hands, overseas stars and well-established domestic names. The leader of this formidable pack is the in-form Yossi Benayoun, nicknamed 'The Diamond' in his native land. The sparkling Liverpool playmaker has been putting in some peerless early-season performances, not least in the 4-0 defeat of Burnley, in which he scored his first English Premier League hat-trick.

And with the likes of Ben Sahar and Amit Ben Shushan packing a punch up front, it is no surprise that Israel have outscored their Group 2 rivals, amassing 17 goals in all.

At the back Tal Ben Haim, now the owner of 49 international caps, has impressed at the head an experienced defensive unit, and 32-year-old goalkeeper Nir Davidovitch has regained coach Kashtan's confidence after some fine displays for Maccabi Haifa.

That combination of solidity and experience has kept Israel's hopes of clinching a play-off place alive, hopes that were bolstered in the last round of games, when Latvia and Switzerland played out a 2-2 draw and Greece were held 1-1 by Moldova.

Now a mere two points adrift of second place, Israel can make further advances when they entertain the Moldovans on 10 October, the same day that Greece and Latvia, the two sides immediately above them, face off in Athens.

Should they win that game and follow it up with victory over the Swiss, then Benayoun and Co might just be able to cast off the 'nearly-men' tag that has dogged them for so long.