Few expected Israel to be unbeaten in 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying going into Saturday's match against Switzerland in Basle. However, Avraham Grant's team are proving a tough nut to crack and remain in contention for a finals place.
With Group 4 proving to be perhaps the tightest qualifying section of all, Israel are in third spot, two points behind leaders the Republic of Ireland and one adrift of their opponents at St. Jakob-Park.
Since the top four - Ireland, Switzerland, Israel and France - have failed to beat each other throughout the campaign, the visitors will do themselves a huge service by avoiding defeat this weekend, ahead of their final group games against the Faroe Islands, home and away.
With Switzerland and France due to meet twice after Saturday's matches, Israel could earn at least a play-off place (via the runners-up position) if the two neighbours only manage draws against one another. All of a sudden, a first World Cup finals appearance in 36 years is not out of the question.
Never say die
Israel's greatest strength so far has been their resilience. Late goals against both Ireland and France secured draws at home, and they went one better at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, scoring twice to cancel out two early Irish strikes and steal a point.
Ben Haim injury
More recently, an Israel side shorn of star players Yossi Benayoun and Avi Nimny overcame hosts Ukraine in a penalty shoot-out at the Valeriy Lobanovskiy memorial tournament in Kiev, before losing to Poland in the final. However, an injury to 23-year-old Tal Ben Haim marred that trip.
'I will play'
The Bolton Wanderers FC defender pulled a stomach muscle and is doubtful for the Switzerland game, despite telling uefa.com earlier this week: "There isn't a chance in hell I will miss this match. This is one of the most important matches Israel have ever had and everyone can rest assured I will play."
Ben Haim made his debut under former Israel coach Richard Møller Nielsen aged only 18 in a 7-1 defeat by Germany. He is now a pivotal player at the heart of Grant's defence and his absence would be sorely felt.
Even with the centre-back, however, the Israelis face a stern test of their credentials, as Ben Haim admits. "The Swiss are a better team than us and are clearly the favourites," he said. "But on our day we can beat anyone. For that to happen, though, all our players will have to play above themselves."
Whether Israel get a result or not, it should be a night to remember in Basle. Arik Benado and Alon Harazi - who will replace Ben Haim if unavailable - are set to break Amir Shelah's record by making their 86th international appearances. Moreover, a travelling crowd of 2,500 will be there to roar Grant's men on.
In the city where Theodore Hertzel laid the foundations for the establishment of the Jewish state in 1897, the Israel coach is eager to reach another landmark in Israel's history. "We are living a dream and want to take it even further," said Grant.
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