Israel manager Elisha Levy has played down his side’s hopes of reaching their first World Cup in nearly half a century, saying they face a ‘very difficult’ task to qualify for Russia in 2018.

The 58-year-old was named as Eli Gutman’s replacement last April, and handed the task of leading Israel in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, which begins with a daunting home match against Italy on Monday evening.

Having not qualified for the tournament since 1970 when they were part of the Asian Confederation, they find themselves in a group which also includes Spain, Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein. With only the group winner sealing a place in Russia, and the runner-up qualifying for a play-off tie, Levy told Jewish News: “Although it’s a very difficult group, the aim is to be competitive, achieve as many points as we can and win the support of our fans.”

Conceding there’s a big difference in class between the sides in the group, he admitted: “The balance of power between the teams is clear to everyone, but anything can happen in football and we will do our best on the field.”

Wary that not all his players will be 100 percent match fit given that the domestic season has only just started, he said: “This is the start of the season, so not all of the players are in their best shape, but this is also true of the Italian squad, since their league started not long ago. But two Israeli teams qualified for the Europa League group stages, so those players will be in a good shape and we can be happy about that.”

Looking to count on a vociferous home support in Haifa, as he looks to get the campaign off to a positive start, he said: “That will be most important. We need our fans, especially in important matches – we count on their support.

“The match against Italy is sold-out and we also have almost 15,000 season ticket holders for the whole campaign. If the fans push us to be the best that we can be, then we’ll look good on the pitch.”

And delighted on a personal note in leading his country, he said: “I’m very proud to be the Israel national team coach. I really see this job as a mission. I will do anything and everything that I can to succeed.

“I have plenty of experience as a coach and I will take this challenge and pressure to improve myself and the players.”