By Simon Hart
The Stadio Renzo Barbera in Palermo - known locally as La Favorita - is the unlikely setting for Israel's first UEFA EURO 2004™ home qualifier against France on Wednesday.
Concerns over the security situation in the Middle East prompted the Israel Football Association's choice of the Italian island as an alternative home venue and more than 1,000 police are being deployed in Palermo to ensure the match is played without any problems.
Officers from Italy, France and Israel will take part in the security operation, which will include body searches of the expected 5,000 spectators attending the match. Ten agents from Tel-Aviv have accompanied the Israel team, while French anti-terrorist officers have travelled with Jacques Santini's squad. On Wednesday evening, huge spotlights will be shone on to the mountain above the stadium to ensure a clear view for the two helicopters monitoring the match from above.
Besides the loss of home advantage, Israel face the reigning European champions and Group 1 leaders with only one fit foreign-based player in Galatasaray SK's Haim Revivo after Real Racing Club Santander's Yossi Benayoun was left nursing a broken toe following Saturday's 1-1 draw with Cyprus in Limassol. Eyal Berkovic was already missing after a hernia operation and coach Avraham Grant admitted on arrival in Sicily that he was "already thinking of a few changes". One likely change is a starting role for Maccabi Tel-Aviv's Avi Nimni, a second-half substitute in Limassol.
Memories of 1993
Israel's finest hour in international competition arguably came against France in October 1993 when two goals in the last eight minutes - one from Berkovic - secured a 3-2 win in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match at the Parc des Princes. Then France - needing just a point from their final two matches - still looked certain to achieve qualification only to lose again, at home to Bulgaria; a similar derailment this time appears unlikely, however.
France on course
Saturday's 6-0 victory over Malta was their fourth in succession and means they have already opened up an eight-point gap over the second-placed Israelis, who have four points from their two games, and Cyprus. Santini admitted: "If we win on Wednesday we will be on 15 points and very close to qualification. But mathematically even with a victory we won't be qualified."
Vieira to return
The France coach warned that he was "expecting a much tougher challenge" from Israel than Malta presented, but it does not help the 'home' side's chances that Patrick Vieira is expected to return in midfield alongside Claude Makelele. The Arsenal FC captain missed the Malta match with a knee strain, his place passing to FC Sochaux-Montbéliard's Benoît Pedretti. Vieira said: "
My knee is better, I hope I'll play".
Prašnikar identifies threats
In the group's other match, Slovenia - fourth in the standings with three points - welcome Cyprus. Slovenia, who warmed up with a 3-0 win against Slovenian second division side NK Dravinja, are missing a number of regulars in Sebastijan Cimirotic, Aleksander Knavs, Milenko Acimovic and Saša Gajser. Slovenia coach Bojan Prašnikar watched Cyprus's draw with Israel and highlighted striker Michalis Constantinou and defender Georgiou Teodotou as the men to watch.
Vukotic rues dropped points
Cyprus's coach Momcilo Vukotic considered the draw with Israel as "two crucial points dropped" and warned his team "will now have to get the points away from home against Slovenia and Israel". He has been forced to make one change, replacing Nicos Nicolaou - who suffered concussion in Saturday's match - with AEL Limassol FC's Georgos Konstanti. One positive omen for Cyprus is that their champions, APOEL Nicosia FC, defeated Slovenian counterparts NK Maribor in UEFA Champions League qualifying earlier this season.
Additional reporting by John Leonidou and Ofer Ronen-Abels
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