A hat-trick from captain Yossi Benayoun helped Israel make a winning start as they beat Malta 3-1 in the Euro 2012 qualifying Group F opener in Tel Aviv last night.
Benayoun, who joined Chelsea from Liverpool during the summer, put the hosts ahead inside seven minutes. Having already had a strike ruled out, he produced a composed finish, slotting Lior Rafaelov’s pass into the net.
Playing their first competitive match under new boss Luis Fernandez, the majority of the 16,000 crowd at the Ramat Gan Stadium was rocked into a stunned silence when Malta drew level. Jamie Pace headed Roderick Briffa’s free-kick in off the post, past a despairing Dudu Awat seven minutes before the break.
Israel came within inches of restoring their lead but Almog Cohen’s speculative strike crashed against the bar.
Knowing that victory against the minnows was essential, Israel stepped up a gear in the second half with Lior Rafaelov becoming increasingly influential.
The home side deservedly went 2-1 up when Malta substitute Andrew Cohen upended Almog in the penalty. Benayoun made no mistake with the resultant penalty, sending Andrew Hogg the wrong from the spot.
Rather than sit back on their lead – as they had been known to do under former manager Dror Kashtan – Israel continued to go forward and they made the game safe with a high-quality move. A powerful drive from substitute Gil Vermouth was pawed out by Hogg but Benayoun was on hand to head into the empty net.
Hat-trick hero Yossi Benayoun said: “I’m not interested in the goals I scored but rather the team performance. That’s not a cliche. The national team represents my country and that’s my love. I want to reach a major tournament final with them and that’s all that I care about. Top scorer? For me that's all nonsense.”
Israel manager Luis Fernandez said: “I never promised it would be 5-0. I said it would not be an easy game and nobody listened to me. They played very defensively and made it difficult for us and they built up confidence and got a goal for themselves. But the main thing is we got the three points. Yossi Benayoun proved what a leader he is.”
Israel’s next match is in Georgia on Tuesday.
Israel: Dudu Awat, Dani Bondarv, Tal ben Haim, Biram Kayal (sub: Eyal Golarsa 86), Almog Cohen, Lior Rafaelov, Yossi Benayoun (capt), Eran Zahavi (sub: Gil Vermouth 51), Ben Sahar (sub: Shlomi Arbeitman 73), Dedi Ben Dayan, Tamir Cohen. Subs not used: Ohad Levita, Dekel Keinan, Yoav Ziv, Yoval Avidor
Israel scorers: Benayoun 7, 64, 75
Booked: Benayoun 40