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Almog Cohen received his spot on the national under-21 team just hours before the team's first match with Italy last week. Until then Cohen was convinced he would have to watch Shiran Yeini and Oshri Roash filling his spot. But coach Motti Ivanir had other plans. "Get yourself ready," he told Cohen the day of the game. "You are going to start. I trust you know how to get the job done."

Cohen did not disappoint and gave a fearless fight for his coach. He neutralized Sebastian Giovinco, the star of the Italian side, and was a constant barrier on defense. The payoff was a scoreless tie that made yesterday's return game a realistic chance for Israel to advance.

"I could not do anything but give my all," Cohen told Haaretz this week. "Motti gave me the confidence. It was one of the best games of my career, if not the best." Cohen, though, doesn't only credit his national coach but also his Maccabi Netanya coach, Lothar Mathaus. "What I learned from him in three months," he said of the German import, "I hadn't picked up in 19 years."

If Giovinco didn't know who Cohen was before Saturday, he certainly was better prepared last night in Italy's 3-1 triumph.

"I annoyed him incessantly throughout the game," Cohen said. One of the highlights, according to Cohen, occurred when Giovinco "started cursing me. Motti told me before the game that he's a hot-tempered guy who loses his cool when he is annoyed. I played aggressively against him, and I made it clear that maybe he's a star, but here he can't do whatever he wants." Cohen admitted that he is short, "but I cover well for it in a game."

A tough neighborhood

Cohen has built a reputation with Netanya as an aggressive player. He describes himself as a bad boy on the pitch, saying it's been that way since childhood.

"I grew up in a tough neighborhood," he said, referring to Be'er Sheva's Ramot neighborhood, "and I was a problem child. Every day I wandered the streets and was either looking for a soccer game or a fight. I was always aggressive and will always be that way."

He said that he has no friends on the pitch and does not know anyone, and that as a result he will not budge for anyone and does not care whether his rival is a star or not. "I don't care if it gives me trouble with other players." Cohen said that off the field, in contrast, he is "a clown, everybody's friend."

The missing ingredient

If there is one part of his game that is lacking, Cohen admitted, it's his offense, which Israel sorely missed last night. "It's something I am working on," he said Sunday. "Once I never even looked for the goal, only how to disrupt the opponent's attack. This season I want a balance of offense and defense, a couple of goals and a couple of assists."

If Cohen wants to make it to Europe, he will have to develop his attack. The 20-year-old has his sights set high, however. He said that his goal is not merely to play in Europe but to be an impact player, not just a benchwarmer. "Luckily," he said, "I'm learning from Mathaus. You have got to admire him. These are practices on a level I've never witnessed. He's always instilling in us that to win a title you have to work hard."