Late goals from substitutes Walid Badir and Shay Holtsman gave Israel a last-gasp victory over Cyprus just when it seemed that a brave defensive display had earned the visiting side a point in this UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 1 qualifier.
Badir had only been on the pitch for two minutes when he found space in a crowded penalty area to nod in Haim Revivo's corner on 88 minutes. Then, with the final kick of the game, Holtsman collected a Revivo cross from the left and, after seeing his initial effort blocked, slid the ball past Nikos Panayiotou in the Cyprus goal. It was harsh on captain Panayiotou who had otherwise been exemplary on a frustrating evening for Israel.
Israel, playing in the Renzo Barbera stadium in Palermo for security reasons, came into the game depleted through injury. With Eyal Berkovic and Avi Nimni both unavailable, the home side struggled to break down a resolute Cyprus defence marshalled superbly by Nikos Nikolaou. Although camped for much of the game in the Cyprus half, Israel were restricted to long-range strikes from Tal Banin who saw a 12th-minute shot tipped over by Panayiotou before grazing the crossbar ten minutes later.
Israel struggled to get in behind the Cyprus defence and their greatest threat came through Adoram Keise on the left. It was Keise's low cross on 32 minutes that came closest to breaking the deadlock, Nikolaou deflecting the ball into the path of Omri Afek whose shot from close range was blocked bravely by Panayiotou.
Cyprus hold back
At the other end, Michalis Konstantinou cut a lonely figure for Cyprus amid a sea of blue Israeli defenders, and the tall Panathinaikos FC striker was restricted to a couple of half-chances as Cyprus ventured little in the final third.
The second period told a similar story with Israel growing in frustration as the half progressed. With Panayiotou dominating his area, chances were at a premium and the pressure told on unmarked substitute Yossi Benayoun who shot over from ten metres on 64 minutes. Israel pressed and pressed but failed to find a way through, until, with one final throw of the dice, Grant sent on Badir who broke the deadlock.
Israel keep pace
With Slovenia defeating Malta 3-1 in the night's other Group 1 fixture, Israel are now third on seven points from four games, two behind second-placed Slovenia and eight off leaders France. For Cyprus coach Moca Vukotic, defeat may have spelt the end of his side's qualification hopes. "We did our best and played our best, but we lost our concentration and paid for it," he said. "We should have been more dangerous in attack. Now Slovenia and Israel are battling for second place and we are out of the competition."