This time last year, Switzerland were in turmoil. After opening their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with a 2-2 draw in Israel, they then suffered the ignominy of defeat to Luxembourg in coach Ottmar Hitzfeld's first competitive home match in charge. Now, as they prepare to welcome Israel to Basel this evening looking to collect the single point required to seal a finals place in South Africa, the mood could not be more different.
Having gone through so much, Hitzfeld believes anything other than an automatic berth would now come as a "huge disappointment" and is backing his side to complete the job at St. Jakob-Park. "Direct qualification would be the result of two years of work," he said. "Something I did not exactly believe in after we lost 2-1 to Luxembourg a year ago. But we have an unpleasant task ahead of us. Israel can still reach the play-offs and have a good zonal defence."
For the first time since taking over, Hitzfeld has been holding his cards to his chest and refused to reveal his lineup ahead of the game. His secretiveness, though, has much to do with a stomach bug that has afflicted his squad since Saturday's 3-0 win over Luxembourg, with goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, captain Alexander Frei and midfielder Benjamin Huggel all struck low. Benaglio is said to have only a 50 per cent chance of being fit in time, while Frei and Huggel have returned to light training and should be available.
Despite beating Moldova 3-1 on Saturday, Israel remain in third place behind Greece and remain outsiders to clinch a play-off spot, though victory would deny Switzerland first place if Greece pick up three points against Luxembourg. For Dror Kashtan's side to finish runners-up in the section, Greece would have to fail to win – and that is a possibility Liverpool FC midfielder and Israel captain Yossi Benayoun does not pin much hope on. "Like the rest of the squad I'm feeling down and disappointed by the fact we have almost lost all chance of qualifying," he said. "What can you do? Failure is part of the game and we are just trying to look ahead and hope to do better the next time round."
Better will come
Capped 76 times by his country, Benayoun clearly has little or no expectation of a miracle this evening, but with Israel edging closer to a first finals appearance since the 1970 World Cup after several near-misses of late, he has hope for the future. "I have been playing for the national team for over eleven years now and football hasn't been all about success," he explained. "I enjoy playing for the national team and, at 29, I am at the peak of my career. I know that things will get better."
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