Russia crash to defeat in Israel, Euro 2008 hopes fade

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The Russian national soccer team's hopes of qualification for Euro 2008 are hanging by a Croatian thread after a 2-1 defeat to Israel in Tel-Aviv.
MOSCOW, November 19 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian national soccer team's hopes of qualification for Euro 2008 are hanging by a Croatian thread after a 2-1 defeat to Israel in Tel-Aviv.

Victory for Russia in Saturday's match would have seen the team leapfrog England in Group E, needing then only to claim three points in Andorra, who have lost all of their 11 qualifying games to date, to claim a Euro 2008 spot.

The days before the game had seen the English media full of speculation that Israel, with a large Russian immigrant population, might not give their all in the match. Suspicions were apparently confirmed when Israel's Russia-born goalkeeping coach admitted that, as Israel had already lost all hope of qualification for next summer's European Championships, he would like to see Russia qualify at the expense of England.

To add fuel to the fire, the Israeli coach spoke of his "warm feelings" for Russia's Dutch trainer, Guus Hiddink, whose father is reported to have sheltered Jews during WWII.

"The fact that my father saved Jews during the war bears no relationship whatsoever to football," Hiddink responded.

However, Israel immediately dismissed any doubts as to their level of motivation, stunning Russia with a 10th minute goal, Barda taking advantage of confusion in the guests' defense to slot the ball home past Russian keeper Vladimir Gabulov. The score remained unchanged until the break.

Guus Hiddink is famed for his side's second half performances, and his tactical tinkering during the break looked to have swung the game in Russia's favor after Bilyaletdinov leveled the score in the 61st minute. Hiddink then gambled, replacing a defender with a forward, and Russia poured forward, looking for the goal that would keep their Euro 2008 hopes in their own hands.

With a minute on the clock, Dmitry Sychev raced through a hole in the home side's defense and poked the ball past the Israeli keeper, only to see the ball slam back off the post and out for a corner.

And then, as the game entered injury team, Ignashyevich, usually Russia's most reliable defender, lost possession, Israel broke, and Golan dealt Russia's hopes a death blow with Israel's second goal. That was almost the last kick of the night, and Russia's players sank to their knees as the reality of defeat sank home.

Guus Hiddink spoke of Russian naivety after the game, telling a UEFA website that, "Tonight is a night of disappointment," he said. "There were a lot of conversations about how easily we should beat Israel, but our defensive mistakes could not have come at a worse time."

The manner of Russia's defeat brought back bitter memories of 1999's European Championship qualifier against Ukraine. Needing a victory to qualify, Russia were 1-0 up in Moscow with minutes left to play, when Andrey Shevchenko swung in a harmless-looking free kick that Filimonov in the Russian goal somehow contrived to first fumble, and then knock over the goal line, putting Russia out.

"We lack that victor's spirit," said Vitaly Mutko, the head of the Russian Football Union, when asked why Russia always seem to lose vital matches, as often as not shooting themselves in the foot. "Everything was in our hands, but we lost," he added.

As is usual after sporting catastrophes, the Russian media was quick to remember the words spoken by former Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomydrin, in the aftermath of the 1998 Russian financial crisis.

"We hoped for the best, but things turned out like they always do," he said. On Saturday, his words rang truer than ever.

Russian companies and oligarchs have invested vast sums in the Russian national game of late, yet Saturday's defeat looks likely to doom Russia to yet another missed tournament following their failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

The group stage wraps up on Wednesday, and Russia's hopes now rest with Croatia, who play England at Wembley on Wednesday. If Croatia, who have already qualified for Euro 2008, beat England, and Russia, as they are almost certain to do, win in Andorra, then Russia will qualify.

Anything less than a Croatian victory will leave Russia licking its self-inflicted wounds once again.

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