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MLS Highlights
By ESPN Staff

A forlorn hope rests with Israel

It's a slim hope at best for those with an interest in seeing England at the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland next summer. Yet the hopes of a nation, and indeed the job security of a manager, rely on Israel getting a positive result against Guus Hiddink's Russia this weekend.

If Russia were to win, they would only be required to beat lowly Andorra in the final group game, while England host group leaders Croatia at Wembley knowing that progression would be as unlikely as Steve McClaren securing a new contract.

With Israel's qualification hopes already laid to waste, the signs for an England escape are not good, especially when the Israel goalkeeping coach claims that he would like to see the Russians at the tournament.

Unsurprising perhaps considering that Alexander Ubarov is a former USSR international, but still a worrying comment for those with English interests.

Speaking to the Israeli sport website, Ubarov said. 'In this game we [Israel] have nothing to lose. The young players in the team want to prove themselves so they can establish themselves in the team. I want Russia to go to the Euros. They have no choice but to win here.'

Israel may have nothing to lose, but they have already lost their central figure, captain Yossi Benayoun, who, unfortunately for England, will miss the game after tearing a groin muscle in Liverpool's win over Fulham last Saturday.

Benayoun's creativity in midfield will be missed, although it may give 19-year-old striker Maor Buzaglo, seen by many as the next bright young prospect in Israel, a chance to shine. Currently on loan from Maccabi Haifa to Bnei Sakhnin, he has had an impressive start to the season scoring four goals in nine league matches to date and also boasts an impressive pedigree, having played in the academies of Lyon and Juventus.

Israel are also boosted by the news that their top scorer Roberto Colautti will return to the side for his first appearance since June.

Colautti has scored six goals in eight appearances for the national side and was sorely missed in their defeats to England and Croatia. Indeed, the Argentine-born striker had a very impressive scoring record for Maccabi Haifa after moving from Boca Juniors in 2004. Now plying his trade with German side Borussia Mönchengladbach, Colautti's inclusion in the squad cannot be underestimated.

Nor can Israel's home record. An imposing venue, the Ramat Gan Stadium has proved something of a fortress for the side, as they have lost only one game in 12 at home. That said, the home support will not be anything like as full as it could be given that Israel cannot qualify, and there should be a large contingent of Russian expats at the game to contribute to the atmosphere.

A crowd of 20,000 are expected to watch the game, although despite the fact that the game is drawing a lot of interest in Israel, many of the interested appear to be Russian. Evidently this would prove to be a massive help to Hiddink's chances of success in a tough away venue, although the Russian players should need no encouragement from the fans.

Reportedly chasing bonuses of £40,000 each if they qualify, qualification alone should be more than enough incentive and Hiddink, too, will be keen to add to his already impressive CV by hauling the Russians into Euro 2008.

While Israel coach Dror Kashtan will be fearful of the sack after coming under scrutiny for some poor performances in recent months, Hiddink can almost do no wrong.

Indeed, the Dutchman said he was 'calm and relaxed' ahead of the game and that he would have no sympathy for England if they do not qualify, claiming: 'If we analyse this group and the teams, then England do not deserve to qualify. You judge success as to who qualifies. If we finish above England then no one can say we don't deserve it. It was not a freak.'

And he has a point. As the old cliché goes, 'the table doesn't lie' and England have not done enough over the qualifying campaign to deserve qualification. The Russians, having beaten England and held Croatia both home and away, have, and they have slowly racked up points without a squad that could compare to England's on paper.

While Hiddink's place in Russian history is almost assured, Steve McClaren's future in international management is almost as unsure as England's chances of qualification.

Now forced to rely on an Israeli offensive to dig them out of trouble, all English eyes will be on the Ramat Gan Stadium on Saturday, with McClaren more interested than most. A Russian win would all but seal their fate and would result in Guus Hiddink being given the freedom of Moscow.

While England's fans may still remain hopeful while Israel stand in the Russians' way, to pin anything on an Andorran result in the final game really would be wishful thinking. But by then, that may be all McClaren has left to cling on to.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter