Itongadol.-Israel got its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a losing start on Monday, falling 3-1 to Italy in Haifa.
While the result was no surprise, Israel will draw some encouragement from its performance in the second half when it put the European powerhouse under pressure and came close to leveling the score.
Graziano Pelle gave Italy the lead after 14 minutes and the match looked to be as good as over when Antonio Candreva made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 31st minute.
However, a stunning Tal Ben-Haim chip over one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Gianluigi Buffon four minutes later handed the blue-and-white a lifeline and Italy was on its back foot after Giorgio Chiellini was sent off in the 55th minute.
But Israel couldn’t find an equalizer and Ciro Immobile clinched the win for Italy with seven minutes to play, breaking Israel hearts after a performance which drew a standing ovation at the final whistle.
Israel knew it had no realistic chance of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1970 even prior to the match after also being drawn with powerhouse Spain, as well as Italy.
Only the winners of each group will qualify automatically, with the eight best runners-up to advance to home-and-away playoffs. Israel will also face Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in qualifying Group G.
The blue-and-white will aim to get back on track when it visits Macedonia on October 6 before hosting Liechtenstein three days later.
Italy wasted no time in seizing control of the contest and took the lead after 14 minutes. A swift team move ended with Luca Antonelli squaring the ball for Pelle who netted one of the easiest goals of his career from two meters out.
Italy was far from flashy, but limited Israel to fruitless possession, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon out of work in the first 30 minutes.
The visitors doubled their advantage in the 31st minute, with Ben Bitton giving away a cheap penalty by tripping Giacomo Bonaventura.
Candreva sent goalkeeper Dudu Goresh the wrong way with his penalty.
Israel looked helpless, but a moment of brilliance by Ben-Haim four minutes later kept the blue-and-white alive. The Maccabi Tel Aviv winger first stole the ball from Juventus defender Chiellini, and after receiving it back from Tomer Hemed, beat Buffon with a delightful chip from the edge of the box.
Italy was closer to its third goal than Israel was to the equalizer in the remainder of the first half, with Pelle’s header in the first minute of stoppage time only being denied by a superb Goresh save.
Goresh was lucky not to concede a third goal two minutes after the break, with Eder catching him out of his goal but failing to place his chip on target.
Buffon finally made a save in the 52nd minute, denying a powerful Nir Bitton effort. Three minutes later, Israel found itself with a one-man advantage.
Chiellini fouled Hemed away from the action and received his second yellow card.
Coach Levy wasted little time and made two quick substitutes, using all three of his changes with 28 minutes of regulation still to play, sending on Omer Atzili and Roei Kehat.
The hosts piled the pressure on Italy and Buffon had to be at his best in the 67th minute with a double save, first denying Kehat’s rocket from 25 meters out and then stretching his body to keep out Eran Zahavi’s rebound.
Israel continued to control the possession but it was Italy who scored the next goal. Buffon’s long ball was brought down by Pelle’s head and substitute Ciro Immobile shoved Israel defender Shir Tzedek out of the way before scoring past Goresh, a painful finish to what was an encouraging second half.