The race for the title of European U-17 Champions moves into a crucial phase this Thursday with the start of the Elite Round. 28 teams will battle it out in seven groups for a place at the finals in Luxembourg, held between 3 and 14 of May, with only the group winners making it through to join the host nation.
First in action will be Group 5, which gets underway this Thursday. Moldova take on Wales before an intriguing Cyprus-Spain clash, with the Iberians looking to bounce back after last year's early exit at the hands of Switzerland. That was the first time since 1987 that Spain were not involved in a final tournament at U-17 level. The Spaniards are traditionally one of the strongest sides at this age group, having won this trophy on six occasions.
Despite last year's disappointment, Juan Santiesteban's
boys are the favourites to progress from the mini-tournament held
on Cypriot soil. Cyprus coach Christakis Christophorou is fully
aware of the task facing his side. "We're up against
Spain, who are one of the best teams in the world at youth level.
They always qualify for major tournaments and have won a number of
titles. That game will be our biggest challenge."
Holders Turkey will begin the defence of their title against Denmark next Wednesday, before hosting Czech Republic and France, champions in 2004. On the back of their astonishing success at last year's tournament and their displays at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, where they reached the semi-finals only to lose a pulsating game against the mighty Brazil, Turkey are out to prove themselves as the new superpower on the European scene.
Sunday sees a mouth-watering clash in Group 1 as last year's runners-up the Netherlands take on neighbours Germany. The Oranje also enjoyed their stay in Peru, avenging their European final defeat by Turkey with victory in the third-place playoff.
With the group games coming thick and fast, and each side playing three matches in just five days, fitness could prove to be a key factor. Group 7, which kicks off next Tuesday, looks particularly evenly-matched with Italy, England, Russia and Bulgaria battling it out for just one place at May's big event in Luxembourg.
England coach John Peacock fully believes that his side has what is takes to make it through to their fifth finals in six seasons: "In the last three years we've won all our qualifying games, a fantastic record which we're keen to maintain. It's going to be a tough group but if we play to our potential then we have nothing to fear."
Antonio Rocca's Azzurrini are equally determined, as they look to reproduce the form that took them within minutes of the final at last year's tournament, before they fell to an extra-time semi-final defeat against the Dutch.
Meanwhile, Portugal host Group 2 opponents Hungary, Sweden and the Ukraine in Viseu. The town is something of a lucky charm for the Portuguese side, having hosted the final game of their 2003 European U-17 Championship win.
Portugal's Fábio Ferreira is keen to get things underway: "We've come here with our eye on first place, which would take us through to Luxembourg. We're feeling physically very strong and the entire squad is totally focused on fulfilling our objective, an achievement which would mean a great deal to us all."
The Elite Round kicks off this Thursday evening, drawing to a close on 1 April.
* The host nations are the first teams listed in each group.