By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Improved discipline and tactical ability from Israel's players are the reasons for the team's continued challenge for a World Cup qualification spot, coach Eli Guttman said on Wednesday.
The Israelis returned home after beating Northern Ireland 2-0 in a tough Group F qualifier in Belfast and were seconds away on Friday from defeating Portugal at home before conceding a stoppage-time equaliser.
Following Tuesday's win over Ireland, Israel clung to second place in Group F ahead of Portugal on goal difference. Both teams have 11 points from six matches behind leaders Russia who have 12 from four.
Israel still have their two toughest away fixtures to come in Russia and Portugal and will need to take points if they are to grab the second-place finish that would earn them a playoff spot against another second-placed European team.
"Things have changed in the team, we have become modest, we are not euphoric and our feet are firmly on the ground... and I know exactly where we stand," Guttman said.
The 55-year-old has gained a reputation as a meticulous planner after league success with Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hapoel Haifa. He was a popular choice for the Israel job but has needed time to settle in and has lost most of his games.
The worst was Israel's 4-0 home loss in their opening home qualifier against Russia in September which followed a disappointing 1-1 draw in Azerbaijan.
But Israel have regrouped after coping confidently with Portugal in the 3-3 draw in Tel Aviv on Friday.
"The team has become Guttmanesque, it has acquired tactical discipline, each player carries out the task he has been set," Guttman said.
Club Bruges forward Lior Refaelov, who scored Israel's first goal in Belfast, said the players were more supportive of each other than ever before.
"There has always been a good atmosphere among the team but I don't ever remember it being as cohesive as this and the players all root each other," he said after Tuesday's win.
Guttman has been particularly happy to have rekindled public support which had waned in recent years.
"People stop me all the time to say how their belief in the national team has been restored, that they adore the national team, there is no better feeling," the coach said.
(Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by Ed Osmond)