Israel and Cyprus both missed the chance to challenge France at the head of UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 1 when they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw in Limassol.
Israel, who play host to France next Wednesday in neutral Palermo, went into the game without injured playmaker Eyal Berkovic. However, they did not look like they were missing their talisman when they took the lead in the first minute.
Afek on target
The goal came from the visitors’ very first attack, as Idan Tal sent in a pinpoint cross that found Omri Afek unmarked and he sent a glancing header past the motionless Nikos Panayiotou. That set the tone for the first half with Israel, who defeated Malta in their opening qualifying match, well on top and looking menacing in attack. Michael Zandberg and Haim Revivo were at the hub of their best moves, posing a constant threat.
They spurned two glorious chances within the space of a minute just before the break with Walid Badir the culprit on both occasions. After 43 minutes he broke up a Cyprus attack and charged into the area and rounded the keeper, only to shoot against the post. Then, seconds later, he sent a header wide when well placed.
Cyprus were transformed in the second half and bristled with attacking intent from the restart. Their best player on the night, the excellent Georgos Theodotou, and striker Michalis Konstantinou were at the heart of much of their best work.
However, it took the introduction of the 36-year-old German-born striker, Rainer Rauffmann, to get the home side back into the game. He had been on the pitch barely a minute when he rose to meet Theodotou's excellent cross from the right and head home. It might have been even better for Cyprus, who could have claimed all three points in the final minutes but the otherwise quiet Yiannakis Okkas was denied by Dudu Awat.
Cyprus hero Rauffmann was self-effacing about his own contribution when he spoke after the match. He said: "To be honest we wanted two more points from this match but Israel came out strong and surprised us and I was happy and lucky enough to cancel out their goal.The goal didn't matter to me - all I want is to help the team."
Meanwhile, Israel captain Tal Banin failed to hide his disappointment. "The game was ours and we let it slip between our fingers," he said. "I am absolutely devastated - it feels like a defeat." Coach Avraham Grant did not seem as downcast. "This is water under the bridge," he said. "We now have to prepare for Wednesday's match against France."