European qualifiers now targeting gold
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Following an action-packed UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship, Spain, Switzerland and Belarus have all booked their places at London 2012 after making up the tournament’s top three. Spain will be leaving Denmark the happiest of the eight participants, having beaten Switzerland 2-0 in the final held at the Aarhus Stadion.

They will go to the Olympics next year in the hope of bettering showings which all three nations can take heart in, with arguably only Spain not exceeding expectations ahead of the tournament – merely achieving them. However should any of the UEFA representatives make it to London’s final next August, the target won’t be silverware, but gold.

La Rojita captured Spain’s second title in the space of year – following the senior side’s FIFA World Cup™ win in South Africa – after seeing off a resilient Swiss side, yet to concede a goal prior to the match, in a keenly fought finale. Xherdan Shaqiri almost put the underdogs ahead as his snap shot tested highly-rated goalkeeper David De Gea towards the end of a tight first half.

However a momentary lapse saw Spain take the lead, with Ander Herrera latching onto the end of Didac Vila Rosello’s cross to head home. An audacious 40-yard free-kick, catching Swiss captain David Sommer off his line, from Thiago Alcantera settled the game. The Barcelona youth product was one of the standout stars for the winners, alongside top scorer Adrian Lopez not forgetting FIFA World Cup winners Javi Martinez and Juan Mata, which bodes well for next year’s Olympic tournament.

Belarus breaking boundaries
Surprise packages Belarus made it through to London 2012 after they left it late in the match for third place against Czech Republic. Simply making it to Denmark was Belarus’s best ever performance at an international competition, having not appeared at a tournament since their independence 20 years ago.

However an 88th minute Yegor Filipenko winner against the Czechs, separating the sides in a tight affair, means the prestige of finishing third amongst Europe’s young elite will be surpassed when they appear at the Olympics. It could have been even better for them though, coming within a minute of a stunning appearance in the final.

Having taken the lead through a well-taken Andrei Voronkov overhead kick against pre-tournament favourites Spain they looked set to pull off the shock of the fortnight. However, an 89th minute equaliser from Adidas Golden Boot-winner Lopez, finishing off a slick-passing move saw the game go to extra-time. Another Lopez goal, followed by a long-range Jeffren Suarez strike saw Spain fulfil their Olympic dreams and leave the eastern Europeans facing a play-off.

Switzerland claimed their place after coming out on top in what was unsurprisingly a close game in Herning. Having stolen the show for much of the tournament, Shaqiri almost stole victory right at the end of the 90 minutes as his well-struck left-footed shot shook Tomas Vaclik’s post. Come extra-time Admir Mehmedi, who similarly shone for the impressive Swiss, strode infield to arrow a 20-yard strike into the far bottom corner and settle the match.

Swiss stride through group
The Alpine side dominated Group A, finishing six points clear of the chasing trio of Belarus, Iceland and Denmark. A 1-0 win over the hosts to open the tournament was largely thanks to goalkeeping heroics by Sommer, but they grew in stature to record comfortable wins over the other group members.

Belarus’ passage out of the first stage of the competition came down to their head-to-head record with Iceland after the three remaining sides finished level on points and goal difference – with a late Maksim Skavysh goal against the islanders effectively the decider. Neither the north Europeans or the hosts had greatly impressed, but the home faithful came into the final game expectant of qualification, but a 3-1 defeat saw both crash out.

Spain had an inauspicious start to the group stages, playing out a 1-1 draw with the much-hyped England – amplified by the recent £30m combined transfer fee of duo Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson. However by the time they faced the Czechs they had found their rhythm before capping off qualification in style with a 3-0 demolition of Ukraine.

England improved as the tournament went on, but the results didn’t. They looked the better side against the Ukraine, only to draw 0-0, before coming within minutes of the win they needed over the Czechs to make the semi-finals, only for a late double to see them limp out 2-1. Following a win over Ukraine by the same scoreline the Czech Republic came in just a point behind Spain, but it was thoroughly clear that La Rojita were always going to be the team to beat, but no-one could manage that feat.