Kashtan's awkward squad keen to point out England's failings

Today's Wembley visitors are targeting 'one of the biggest achievements' in their history, writes Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online

Watching Israel's players set urgently to work at Watford's training ground this week there was – from England's point of view at least – the nasty sense of an awkward possibility.

Should this mixture of experienced European operators and promising home-based up-and-comers manage to restrict England to a draw in today's Euro 2008 qualifier, as they did in their home match six months ago, the outcome for Steve McClaren and his team could be deeply challenging.

And while the prospect of an Israeli victory appears remote, particularly as their limited stock of forwards has been diminished still further by the groin injury suffered by their Argentine-born striker Robert Collauti, their form thus far in Euro 2008 offers genuine hope that they can play more than a walk-on part at Wembley.

The Borussia Moenchengladbach man busied himself with no more than gentle jogging in the warm, September sunshine at London Colney as his team-mates laboured under the stern gaze of a grey-haired man who stood straight-backed with arms folded over his chest. The word is that there are no slackers in the Israeli squad – and the man who ensures that is so is their coach Dror Kashtan, whose ability to hold a grudge, and his own counsel, makes Alex Ferguson appear meek and loquacious by comparison.

Whatever Kashtan does during this visit to England, he will not be seeking out his predecessor Avi Grant, who is now ensconced at Chelsea, for any help or advice.

The Israeli manager has never forgiven Grant since he was installed as manager at Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1996 after a season in which Kashtan had guided the club to the league and cup double. The pair have not spoken for years, and when both were invited to Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim's wedding this summer, they had to be put on different tables.

Kashtan also nurses a grievance against the media which goes back 20 years to the time when he was in charge of an Israeli youth team at a tournament in Koblenz and two of his players were caught stealing cash, prompting a spate of what you might think was understandably bad publicity.

The 62 year-old manager, who has won six Israeli league titles with four different clubs, is now steering his country towards what promises to be one of their better qualifying campaigns. In 1999, Israel came within one match of reaching the Euro 2000 finals, and qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals, guided by Grant, finished in similarly frustrating fashion as they fell short despite drawing every game against France, Ireland and Switzerland.

As with England, Israel's peak performance still towers more than 30 years in the past – they reached the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, and though they failed to qualify from their group, they did manage creditable draws against Sweden and the eventual finalists, Italy.

Thus far into the build-up this week, Kashtan has neglected to stir his players' combativeness by citing the fact that Israel used to be under British mandate, as he did back in March. But he has still talked about the forthcoming challenge in martial terms. "Any result apart from a defeat will be one of the biggest achievements in Israeli football," he said. "At the moment the sword is on England and we should be prepared for them to pile on the pressure from the start."

The sword of expectation may be pressed to England's collective throat, but McClaren will be acutely aware of the knife that is hovering between his shoulder blades.

If Kashtan's men earn a point today, he will be offered a new contract by the chairman of the Israeli FA, Avi Luzon – for Dror Kashtan, read Draw Kashin. In that event, McClaren would face a far poorer prospect.

Israel's defensive preparations were clearly apparent in training. Their captain Yossi Benayoun was defiant in the face of suggestions that his team would simply play for a point. "I don't care," he said. "Don't expect us to play an open game and be 3-0 down after 20 minutes."

Benayoun knows that if Israel can prevent England scoring for half an hour or so, the home fans are likely to begin voicing the dissent and dissatisfaction that has already emerged in this campaign. Their prospects of doing so will rest heavily on the experience of keeper Dudu Aouate, who plays for Deportivo, and the solidity of defensive partnership Shimon Gershon and Ben Haim.

In the likely absence of Collauti, who has joint Israeli citizenship through marriage, Israel will probably play just one man up front in Barak Yitzhaki, although Kashtan may also call upon the talents of his 19-year-old Nigerian born forward Toto Tamuz, who has attracted widespread interest from European clubs and was described by a Middlesbrough scout as "Israel's Samuel Eto'o". How rashly, England may be about to discover.

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