By Michael Jacobs / firstname.lastname@example.org
Two of the biggest soccer games in Israel’s history will be played before the end of March, and the results will go a long way toward determining whether Israel qualifies for the European Championships for the first time.
After the first three of the 10 games it will play in qualifying, Israel finds itself in an unaccustomed position: first place in Group B.
Ahead of Belgium, which is fourth in the FIFA world rankings and figures to be one of the favorites to win the European Championships in 2016.
Ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which played in the World Cup in Brazil last summer.
Ahead of Wales, whose roster includes one of the most expensive players in the world, Gareth Bale.
Israel has a perfect record after winning 2-1 at Cyprus and 4-1 at Andorra in October, then taking its home opener against Bosnia, 3-0, in mid-November at Sami Ofer Stadium in Haifa.
When qualifying started, Israel was buried in the FIFA rankings; it was as low as 78th in 2012. Three games in, Israel has leapt to 26th, second-best in Group B. The United States, by comparison, is 32nd.
Those three wins give Israel nine points in Group B. Wales, with eight points, sits second, followed by Cyprus, Belgium, Bosnia and Andorra.
Belgium, like Israel, has played only three games, while the others have played four. That’s because Israel’s home game against Belgium in August was postponed for the Gaza war. The makeup is set for Tuesday, March 31, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
That game offers Israel a chance to establish itself as a team capable of playing with the best in the world, and even a draw, worth one point, would be more than Israel figured to get when qualifying started.
The more important game for the goal of qualifying for Euro ’16, however, is three days earlier when Wales visits Sami Ofer Stadium on a Saturday night.
The top two teams from the group qualify for Euro ’16, to be held in France. The third-place team advances to a home-and-home playoff against the third-place team from another qualifying group for a spot in the championships.
Belgium, the team that eliminated the United States from the World Cup last year, figures to claim one of the top two spots in Group B. Its roster has more world-class talent than the other five teams combined.
Andorra is hopeless. Bosnia was expected to be the second-best team in the group but has struggled to two draws and two losses so far, and its coach resigned after the beating Israel administered in November.
So Israel is competing with Cyprus, which it defeated on the road, and Wales for that second spot and automatic qualification. A win March 28 would give Israel at least a four-point edge on Wales (pending the Belgium game) halfway through qualifying. Cyprus is playing at Belgium that night and is a big underdog.
Even a loss at home to Belgium shouldn’t hurt Israel too much if it follows a victory over Wales.
A home draw against Wales would not be ideal but would keep Israel in the lead and would look even better alongside a draw with Belgium. A loss to Wales, on the other hand, would be a crushing result, likely dropping Israel into third place after the game against Belgium.
The Wales game is being played at 1 p.m. Atlanta time, so it will be over long before Shabbat ends and isn’t on local television anyway. But the Belgium game will be on Fox Sports 1 live at 2:45 p.m. March 31.
Qualifying continues in June with one game, then two in September and two in October, magically dancing around the High Holidays. With any luck, Israel will travel to Belgium for the finale Oct. 13 with a spot in France already secured.