Sporting a tight shirt, jeans and red handball shoes, Dragan Djukic set out for his first game as coach of Israel's national team against Germany in the second qualification round of the European Championship on Sunday night.
Reserved and ready, the Serb wandered on the light blue surface specially installed in the Gan Nahum arena, and then took a seat in the middle of the bench. His Israeli assistant, Shahar Haber, sat to his right, while Romanian goalkeeper coach Aleksandro Buligan sat to his left.
A cosmopolitan air enveloped the professional renaissance that Israeli handball has experienced, and everything was set for the meeting with Germany, one of the best teams in the world.
With the conclusion of the national anthems, every Israeli player approached his German counterpart to present him with a gift. The 15 or so centimeters that separated the opponents created more than a few concerns, except that Djukic's team played in the moment, without too much concern for its fate.
Under the leadership of Itzhak Halifi and Chen Pomeranz, the blue and white squad climbed to a 12-9 advantage in the 23rd minute. A slew of impressive saves by goalkeeper Gil Yaakov, fast breaks by Ariel Rosental and sparkling moves by Pomeranz kept Israel in the picture.
The German powerhouse dragged its feet but the intimidating favorites incrementally took control of the court and took a 21-18 lead. The visitors efficiently and constantly sapped Israel's creative energy and extended the gap to five points with 11 minutes remaining.
Omer Davda celebrated his 25th birthday with one of the best halves of his career, and together with Pomeranz rallied Israel to within two points, at 26-24 in the 53rd minute.
That's when Sven-Soren Christophersen came off the bench, helped put Germany up 29-25 and dispel any last illusions of an upset.
Israel lost this emotional and fascinating evening not only because of the size and fitness differences but also because the team had only four offensive weapons on the court, accounting for 25 of its 27 goals - Pomeranz had nine goals, Halifi had six and Davda and Rosental added five each.
Germany, in contrast, supplied a diverse battery to achieve a critical victory for the campaign. Christophersen, who scored seven goals, noted that Israel's players are not strong or tall but that they found a way to make things difficult for his team. He added that the key for Germany was to play patiently and wait for Israel to make mistakes.
Djukic explained Israel's second-half woes by noting that he did not have enough players in game condition to last 60 minutes. The international experience of Germany's teammates made the difference, but Israel showed team spirit, the coach stressed, and he saw the national squad he wants to see. Germany is the top, he explained, a world-class giant, and Israel played its heart out.
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