Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia and Montenegro, Belgium, Spain and Russia are the seven sides who will fight it out with hosts Luxemburg between 3 and 14 May for this year's UEFA European U-17 Championship.
The seven mini-tournaments that served as qualifiers for the competition's final phase threw up several surprises and left more than one big name out in the cold. Traditional powerhouses England, Portugal and France all fell by the wayside during the elite round group games, leaving less-fancied teams like Russia, Hungary and Czech Republic to make a rare dash for the podium.
Turkey, the Netherlands and Italy, Europe's three representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, will also be missing from the finals in Luxembourg after failing to recapture the form that earned them the top three places in the same tournament only a year ago.
Furia bounce back as the
Oranje bow out
Spain began their quest for a place in Luxemburg with a nervy 1-1 draw again mini-tournament hosts Cyprus, before getting back on track with a 2-0 win over Wales. A similar win for the hosts against Moldova meant it all came down to the final pair of games. Needing a win against the Welsh, Cyprus were rocked by two goals in as many minutes and saw their dreams of making the finals go up in smoke.
Meanwhile, in the other Group Five game, Spain saw off the challenge of Moldova thanks to an Aaron Niguez Esclapez first-half hat-trick. The win secured top spot for Juan Santisteban's charges and made up for the disappointment of missing out on the finals of last year's UEFA U-17 Championship after being ever-present at the event for almost 20 years.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, runners-up at last year's event, missed out this time after finishing behind Group 1 winners Germany on goal difference. The group winners have their strikers, and Manuel Fischer in particular, to thank for their place in Luxemburg. The VfB Stuttgart frontman bagged a hat-trick in Germany's 4-0 over Finland and was on target again in their 4-0 rout of Northern Ireland.
No way back
Turkey missed out on the chance to defend their European title after a hugely disappointing qualifying tournament in which they recorded a solitary goal from Adel Taarabt and just one point, a 1-1 draw with the French. By then, however, the reigning champions were all but out of the running after narrowly losing their two opening games against Denmark and the Czech Republic respectively. Those two sides went head-to-head in their deciding game, with a 2-0 win for the Czechs enough to seal top spot in a tough group and book their place at the May finals.
France coach Luc Rabat was generous in his praise of the victorious Czechs, saying: "The best-balanced side finished top of the group. They deserved their qualification. As for ourselves, we could have beaten Turkey but just lacked that little bit of talent. The players were unable to impose their game on a side that had just lost their two previous matches."
Meanwhile in England, the surprise package in Group 7 turned out to be Russia, who put paid to the hopes of the host nation as well as those of the ever-dangerous Italians. Their 5-0 demolition of Bulgaria, courtesy of an Igor Gorbatenko hat-trick, followed by their 2-1 defeat of the English, was sufficient to claim top spot in the table.
The 2-1 reverse was England's first loss in a qualifying
match for three years. Speaking afterwards England coach John
Peacock was still gracious in defeat: "We're disappointed,
but I feel the best team won the group. I think the Russians had a
bit too much for us both physically and technically, and were the
better team on the day."
Russia's win meant Italy's 3-0 victory over Bulgaria in their final game was too little, too late, and Antonio Rocca's Azzurri duly bowed out of the competition.
Portugal were another side unable to make home advantage count,
and they also miss out on the finals. After managing only a draw
against Ukraine in their final game, the Iberian side finished
second in the Group 2 behind the high-scoring Hungarians on goal
Portuguese coach António Violante said afterwards that nerves had hampered his young side, although he was still magnanimous in defeat. "I think the best team in this group have qualified," he said. "Against Ukraine, my boys started very nervously, and the opposition took advantage of that to score twice in the first half. In the second half, my players improved a lot, and I think the result was a fair one."
Particularly impressive for the Hungarians was Krisztian Nemeth, scorer of four goals in the mini-tournament and undoubtedly one of his side's most indomitable players.
Serbia and Montenegro, for their part, bounced back from an opening-day defeat of Israel, who themselves slumped to defeat in their subsequent encounters, to secure their berth in Luxemburg with wins over Romania (1-0) and hosts Republic of Ireland (3-0) in Group 6. Elsewhere, Belgium claimed top spot in Group 4 to put their name into the hat for the finals after finishing ahead of a strongly-fancied Swiss side that had put paid to Spanish hopes last year.
UEFA European U-17 Championship Luxembourg 2006
Group 1: Germany
Group 2: Hungary
Group 3: Czech Republic
Group 4: Belgium
Group 5: Spain
Group 6: Serbia and Montenegro
Group 7: Russia