The pitch is perfect, the team and their supporters are ready for a crucial European Championship contest here this weekend, but it seems fair to say that Israel's limited-overs cricket match against Croatia tomorrow to decide relegation and promotion between European divisions two and three will attract rather less attention than the football match in which Russia are the opponents and England's are the heads on the block.
Dror Kashtan of Israel has already been assured that despite failing to reach next summer's finals in Switzerland and Austria, he will take his team into the forthcoming World Cup campaign; Steve McClaren has no such guarantee and would doubtless be happier if he felt that the strongest possible Israeli team would be taking the pitch this evening. Unfortunately, the veteran Kashtan is exercising his privilege to give some experience to younger players.
Moreover, Guus Hiddink and his Russians finally rolled into town last night with only one slight injury concern, namely whether their first-choice goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, is fully match-fit after missing six months with cruciate ligament damage, including both matches against England.
Andrei Arshavin, who will pull the strings from a position just behind the main striker, is interesting Newcastle United, but almost 20 years after Avi Cohen signed for Liverpool, the financial backing of wealthy businessmen such as Roman Abramovich – also in attendance with a large entourage today – ensures that football traffic tends to go the other way.
As well as expensive imports, there has been a steady increase in the production of young talent, which was a part of the job that appealed to Hiddink when he took it last year after declining to be interviewed for the England vacancy. Seville's Alexander Kerzhakov is one of the few leading players with a foreign club and he will be dropped for Roman Pavlyuchenko, the substitute who transformed the game in Moscow with two goals.
Kerzhakov played poorly in Moscow as a lone striker but has had plenty to say for himself since, criticising the England team for having too much money and insufficient team spirit, and now irking Kashtan by suggesting that Israel could play with 13 men this evening and still not win. "There has been a touch of arrogance," Kashtan said yesterday, adding in a rare moment of dry humour: "We have checked Uefa regulations and we can't play with 13 players."
The Israel coach was much more complimentary about Hiddink, whose father was a hero of the Dutch resistance, stealing food coupons to help Jews there. "He is one of the top coaches in the world and we all have a warm place in our hearts for what his people did for the Jewish nation during the holocaust," he said. "We can see the change in the Russian team and the fingerprint of the coach."
Hiddink believes the side is still developing, but he must feel they are NOW on a roll. "I'm curious to see how the team will react to the challenge and the pressure," he said before a training session at the Ramat Gan stadium last night. "We are turning into a young, modern, more attractive team and if we qualify it will accelerate the process. It is good to be still in control with two games to go. If you have to stand back and wait on other results, you are in second position and you want to be in first."
Croatia seem certain to confirm first place in Group E against Macedonia tonight. The growing fear is that by close of play tonight Hiddink, not McClaren, will be sitting pretty in second.Reuse content