Football: Berkovic can be the key to Israeli dream

Denmark will face a stern test in the Middle East for the first leg of their play-off.
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The Independent Online
DAVID BEN-GURION, the founder of the modern state of Israel, once said famously of his countrymen: "We do not believe in miracles, we count on them." In a sporting context, such words will never be more apt than when Israel line up against Denmark on Saturday.

Apart from Slovenia, the Israelis are the surprise package of the play- offs. But in a country that knows all about being the underdog, even the most optimistic supporters question whether their team has enough quality to reach the European Championship finals for the first time in their history.

This weekend's first leg at the 45,000-capacity Ramat Gan stadium in Tel Aviv was sold out weeks ago. Exceptionally, it is being staged just after the end of the Jewish sabbath, instead of on a Sunday. This is so that their coach, Shlomo Scharf, can give his players a crucial extra 24 hours to prepare for the return in Copenhagen next week.

Scharf, a highly knowledgeable but somewhat prickly disciplinarian, has stopped speaking to the media in the build-up to the game after a Danish tabloid newspaper apparently quoted him as saying his team had no chance. Scharf insists he was misquoted but Denmark have won all four encounters to date between the sides, and even he would acknowledge that an aggregate victory over both legs would constitute a major surprise.

Having said that, it is not only in the political arena that Israel has made huge strides in recent months. The national football team is currently 27th in the Fifa world rankings, up from 60th two years ago. At club level, Maccabi Haifa got to last season's European Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final,the first time an Israeli team had got that far in Europe, while last week, Hapoel Haifa won 1-0 at Ajax in the Uefa Cup despite going out of the competition after a heavy home defeat in the first leg.

Avi Cohen, the former Israeli full-back who signed for Liverpool back in 1979, says the transformation has been gradual rather than sudden. "Although we qualified for the 1970 World Cup, being integrated into Europe after years in the wilderness has helped us enormously because it has given us the opportunity to play against the best," said Cohen, who won 63 caps for Israel and now coaches the club side Hapoel Kfar-Saba.

Ronny Rosenthal, formerly of Liverpool, Tottenham and Watford, said expectations will be high but realistic against the 1992 European champions. With most of the Israeli squad now playing for overseas clubs, Rosenthal believes a narrow first-leg win is certainly possible. "The Danes are favourites but in knock-out football anything can happen," said Rosenthal, who won 61 caps for Israel. "They have a lot of quality players but this is a very dangerous match for Denmark. They have everything to lose."

While everyone admits Israel were fortunate to have been placed in the weakest qualifying group - they lost twice to Spain and were even beaten by Cyprus yet still reached the play-offs - all that will be forgotten on Saturday. Scharf, not unnaturally, will be expecting Celtic's Eyal Berkovic, very much the orchestrator of the team, to have one of his inspirational days. "Berkovic is crucial to us," said Scharf. "He is the violin that dictates the rest of the orchestra."

Three other players plying their trade in Britain are also in the squad - Najwan Ghrayib, of Aston Villa, Wimbledon's Walid Badir and Jan Telesnikov, of Dundee United. Whether any of the three start the game depends on the system employed by Scharf who, Rosenthal believes, will have studied the Danes in detail. "He knows how to get the best of his players. But our problem is inconsistency."

Indeed it is. Great performances have too often been followed by depressing defeats, national expectation too frequently replaced by self-recrimination. The record books show that Israel's best victories have always come in friendlies when the pressure is off or in matches where the chance of ultimate glory has long gone.

The most famous example of this was in 1993, a World Cup qualifier against France at the Parc des Princes when Israel won 3-2 in what, for them, was already a meaningless fixture. How they would love to reverse that trend over the next week.

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