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.
As key forward Elyaniv Barda correctly predicted in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com 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.
Calculation of points for a single match
P = M x I x T x C
M: points for Match result
Teams gain 3 points for a victory, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a defeat. In a penalty shoot-out, the winning team gains 2 points and the losing team gains 1 point.
I: Importance of match
Friendly match (including small competitions): I = 1.0
FIFA World Cup™ qualifier or confederation-level qualifier: I = 2.5
Confederation-level final competition or FIFA Confederations Cup: I = 3.0
FIFA World Cup™ final competition: I = 4.0
T: strength of opposing Team
The strength of the opponents is based on the formula: 200 – the ranking position of the opponents.As an exception to this formula, the team at the top of the ranking is always assigned the value 200 and the teams ranked 150th and below are assigned a minimum value of 50. The ranking position is taken from the opponents’ ranking in the most recently published FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
C: strength of Confederation
When calculating matches between teams from different confederations, the mean value of the confederations to which the two competing teams belong is used. The strength of a confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by that confederation at the last three FIFA World Cup™ competitions (see following page). Their values are as follows:
|Points Last Month|
|Points outside Ranking calculation|