Israel were made to work hard for an away victory against Malta tonight with second-half goals from Pini Balili and Haim Revivo eventually earning them a 2-0 victory in their EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 1 opener.
Good start needed
Victory was vital for the visitors if they were to realistically challenge group favourites France and Slovenia for a place in Portgual in two years' time. The fact that Israel had also seen next week's home fixture against Cyprus postponed until April had further increased the need to get off to a good start.
High and wide
Israel took their time to get going but found their range after 15 minutes. Balili was teed-up by Eyal Berkovic on the edge of the area before blasting a powerful left-foot drive which rattled the crossbar. Malta replied with 1. FC Kaiserslautern striker Michael Mifsud firing high and wide, while Israel hit back but Malta goalkeeper Mario Muscat saved well from Revivo.
In the 29th minute, Berkovic exchanged passes with Idan Tal before releasing Avishai Zano down the right flank, before continuing his run into the area. The Manchester City FC playmaker rose high and sent an accurate header which forced an excellent save from Mario Muscat.
Ten minutes after the restart Israel took the lead through Balili at the end of a move which was practised in training throughout the week. Assi Domb crossed the halfway line and released Berkovic who slid the ball with a delicate touch to Revivo beyond Malta's defensive line. He broke into the area before squaring the ball to present Balili with the easiest of goals from close range.
Until then Malta had defended solidly and were beginning to dream about taking a priceless point at home. Midfield man Joe Brincat was in fine form on his 100th appearance for his country, a feat which saw him become only the third player in Maltese history to reach a century of caps.
In the 71st minute, Grant made his first substitution as Yossi Benayoun replaced the tiring Balili and five minutes later he had a key role in Israel's second. Benayoun unselfishly fed Revivo when he could have scored himself and Malta were down and out.
Avi Nimni, on as a late replacement for the inspirational Berkovic, still managed to miss a glorious chance to add a third but the damage was done.
"Test me at the end of the campaign and not after one match," said Grant. "Malta closed the game right from the start and the pitch conditions didn't allow us to play our regular game in the first half. But overall I'm satisfied with the result and with the in which way we opened the campaign."