For all his youth – he only recently turned 20 - Yuval Shpungin is one of the more mature members of the Israel squad at this UEFA European Under-21 Championship. So when he sits back and takes stock of his team's situation in Group A going into their third game against Portugal on Saturday, the inclination is to listen.
Guy Levy's ground-breakers have two defeats to show for their participation in the Netherlands, yet according to right-back Shpungin, they are not out of place in this elevated company. "Of course the levels are much higher than in Israel but we didn't seem to be any less of a team and we managed to cope really well with both the Dutch and the Belgians," he said. "With a bit more concentration we might have got something. We feel extremely disappointed."
Israel suffered slender 1-0 losses in both matches and now find themselves playing for third place – and the possibility of a play-off for Olympic qualification – against Portugal in Groningen. To achieve their goal, they will have to start finding the net. "We do have a problem scoring goals but I am not criticising any of the players for not scoring," continued the Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC tyro. "There is pressure but I don't quite feel it - we start a game with the expectation of scoring and winning games – we are not affected by this perception."
Shpungin and company were undone by a pass behind their defensive line late on against Belgium, which exploited the pace of Kevin Mirallas. However, he remains confident in Levy's rearguard. "I don't think we have a problem with slow defenders. We've had one mistake over 90 minutes," he said. "In fact, we don't have any fitness problems at all. Against Belgium we dominated and ran them ragged throughout. I don't think there is a problem."
Aim to stay
Israel may require all their reserves of energy if they beat Portugal to earn a fifth-place play-off against the third-placed finisher from Group B, subject to England coming second in that section. They will also need to change travel plans. Shpungin, whose family are attending the tournament, said: "My brother has studying to do so he is going back on Monday but they all want to stay." An extended stay could also suit a player who has earned his first four senior international caps this calendar year. Having survived a daunting introduction against Netherlands winger Royston Drenthe, he then caught the eye against Belgium on Wednesday. "We will do everything needed to carry on," he promised.
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