Fast Facts: FIFA Rank - 93rd (Scotland are 50th), Key Men - Eran Zahavi (33, FWD, Guangzhou R&F - 19 goals in 52 caps), Moanes Dabour (28, FWD, 1899 Hoffenheim - 7 goals in 21 caps).
After a painfully lengthy break, international football is set to return with the kick-off of the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League. Now in League B after promotion in 2018, Steve Clarke’s men will face off in a group of 4 in a fight for promotion to join the elite in the top tier. Amongst our opponents are some familiar foes and others we haven’t faced in a few years.
The top seeds in the group are the Czech Republic, a nation Scotland haven’t faced competitively since our Euro 2012 campaign. Slovakia are 3rd seeds behind Scotland who are 2nd, and our previous clashes with them are more recent, beating them at Hampden after a disappointing early defeat away in Slovakia back in 2017.
First up for us is 4th seed, Israel, a familiar foe for the Tartan Army. Having not faced them since 1981, we were drawn against them in our opening Nations League campaign in League C where we won promotion and a play-off place, to then be drawn against them again in the play-offs despite Israel’s 2nd place finish. Now after promotion to League B we meet again, with Israel sneaking up into League B after the competition was shaken up by UEFA and the groups were rearranged.
We kick-off by playing host to them at Hampden, minus the Tartan Army who are locked out by restrictions due to Covid-19. Due to the lockdowns which occurred across the world, many leagues have been affected in different ways and this has had a significant impact on the game time players have had in the build up to this international double header.
The Scotland squad is a mixed bag with many of the players who don’t play their club football within Scotland returning to training down south and building up momentum in their pre-season fixtures after enjoying time off following a jam-packed end to the season in July. Those who play within the SPFL are already a handful of games into the season.
Looking at the Israel squad, they seem to have a higher portion of players playing in leagues where the new seasons have resumed. This is because so many Scotland players play their club football in England. The only Israeli players whose seasons have not resumed are those who play for teams in Germany, Spain and The Netherlands. Their goalkeeper Harush appears to be the only player in their camp who has not returned to training yet and this is because he is currently without a club.
Previous form of Israel can’t be considered too much going into this fixture as it has been so long since the last international break, but it’s still worth looking at how they faired during their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
It was a tight group which involved Poland, Austria, Slovenia, North Macedonia and Latvia. In the end it was a disappointing finish for them, and despite being the seeded 3rd in group G, they slumped to a 5th place finish. They kicked off the campaign well enough with a draw and two wins, one of which was an impressive result beating Austria 4-2. After that however things went downhill, only registering one win and one draw in the remaining seven fixtures.
The nature of the extended break would make you think it’s a clean slate in terms of preparation and momentum for both nations going into these upcoming matches.
Since their last game back in 2019, Israel has gone through some changes behind the scenes. After disappointing during the EURO 2020 qualifiers, Austrian gaffer Andi Herzog has been replaced by a fellow countryman, in caretaker manager Willibald Ruttensteiner. ‘Willi’ returns to management after a significant break away from any managerial positions, with his most recent role in charge back in 2011, when he was involved with the Austrian national team.
Looking at their squad it is similar to Scotland in one respect and that it the fact that many within their camp play their club football domestically within Israel. Two players who Scotland fans will be somewhat familiar with are the Celtic pair, Nir Bitton and right back Abd Elhamed. Another is Hibs shot stopper Ofir Marciano, who Scotland could reasonably expect to line up against on Friday.
Throughout Israel’s EURO 2020 qualifiers he shared the gloves with Harush, but as the keeper who spent last season with Sparta Rotterdam is still without a club it is likely we will see Marciano facing off against the likes of Dykes, McGinn and Christie.
Casting our minds back to the last time we face Israel back in 2018, Zahavi was the man who scored the second goal to reduce the Scotland’s lead to one and really put McLeish’s men under the cosh in the dying minutes of the match.
He’s no spring chicken at 33, but Zahavi was ever present throughout their EURO 2020 qualifying campaign leading the line. Regardless of their poor results he managed to notch an impressive 11 goals, a total only exceeded by England’s Harry Kane and equalled by Cristiano Ronaldo. He has also been in fine form for his club since the Chinese Super League restarted and has scored 4 goals in his last 5 appearances leading up to the international break. He is certainly a player Clarke will want his defence to keep an eye on. Strike partner Dabbur who plays for Hoffenheim is also in the squad, and the pair appear to work well together with Dabbur providing a few assists for Zahavi along with scoring a handful himself.
Israel’s downfall does seem to lie more in their defence. One of the main factors in their 5th place finish in qualifying was certainly the number of goals they leaked. They did score more than North Macedonia who finished 3rd but they conceded significantly more than anyone else in the group with the exception of Latvia who came last. This weakness is something Clarke will certainly be looking to exploit.
Due to a couple of hammerings from Belgium and Russia, Scotland’s own defensive record for the 2020 qualifying campaign was hardly glowing, in fact we actually conceded one more than our upcoming opponents. This is an issue you would hope Scotland could find an easier solution to, even if it does mean overcoming the headache of shoehorning our two world class left backs into the starting eleven.
Israel’s cover at the back is less star studded than our own. This international break has seen a first call up for German born Hanna who plays in the Ukrainian Premier League, and he joins a defence which has a reasonable variation of players who play in the Israeli league as well as others who play for Ludogorets, Vitesse and of course Celtic.
In midfield, Scotland won’t have to worry about Kayal who opened the scoring last time we played them as he has not made the squad. Veteran midfielder and captain Natcho is near enough a guaranteed starter, an experienced and level header player in the middle of the park for them. With 66 caps for Israel, Natcho plays for Partizan in Serbia and he joins the Israel camp having scored in each of his last two appearances for the Belgrade side, converting two penalties one of which helped send them into the next round of Europa League qualification.
Overall, Israel won’t be push overs. Our two recent encounters with them were both difficult affairs and regardless of their slump during their EURO 2020 qualifiers, they’ll be looking to turn over a new leaf after plenty of time off since the last international break. Their biggest threat is easily in their attack, and Clarke will be sure to warn his defence of the threat posed by the strike force of Zahavi and Dabbur. With Scotland’s significant fire power in the attacking midfield department, one would certainly say we have more than enough to over come Israel. One would hope that Clarke will finally nail down a system that works and get’s the best out of our squad as well as our star left backs.