Captain Yossi Benayoun scored a hat-trick to lead Israel to a 3-1 win over Malta in their opening Euro 2012 Group F qualifier on Thursday.
Chelsea star Benayoun struck in the seventh minute with a low shot from close range, converted a penalty in the 64th and finished off with a header 15 minutes from time.
Malta’s 33-year-old London-born midfielder Jamie Pace headed an equalizer in the 38th minute to send the teams in level at half-time but the visitors found their hosts too aggressive and skilful throughout the match.
The other opening Group F fixtures were due to be played yesterday with Latvia hosting Croatia and Greece at home to Georgia.
Benayoun set the tone for a new-look Israel side under the guidance of French coach Luis Fernandez and he also had an effort disallowed.
Malta, ranked 151st in the world by FIFA, never looked like threatening Israel’s dominance at their home bastion, where they rarely lose, and had to rely on a handful of counterattacking moves either side of half-time when they were at their most dangerous.
The hot and humid conditions helped neither team but Fernandez insisted that Israel had faced tough opposition.
“I told you it would not be an easy match, remember what I said ... if you came to see eight goals, it was not going to be that sort of game,” Fernandez told a news conference.
“There are many things that need to be improved upon, we have two years to try to qualify, these are very tough games and it was also very hot,” the Frenchman said.
“It will be harder and more complicated against Georgia, they are a very talented side,” the 50-year-old former Paris Saint-Germain, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol coach said of Israel’s next opponents whom they play away on Tuesday.
Malta coach John Buttigieg lamented two major errors.
“We knew that it would be a difficult match, Israel put us under pressure ... but unfortunately we made two big mistakes towards the end. We are very disappointed but I think Israel deserved to win,” the former Brentford defender said.
The match had been moved forward a day at the request of the Israeli FA, which preferred not to play on Friday during the Jewish Sabbath.
Additional reporting by staff writer