Juan Santisteban is unquestionably an expert when it comes to spotting young talent and getting the best out of them on the international stage. Since he began working with Spain's youth teams back in 1988, he has been responsible for finding and nurturing a host of young players with whom he has won an impressive list of titles along the way.

This week, the U-17 coach was in Madrid working with the latest generation of youngsters as they continued their preparations ahead of the qualifiers for the 2007 UEFA European U-17 Championship. The tournament will take place between 2-13 May in Belgium, where the continent's elite will be competing for five berths at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 .

However, before Santisteban and his squad can start planning for Belgium, there is the not inconsiderable matter of their Group 7 qualifying games against Poland, Sweden and Switzerland, scheduled for 26-31 March. "At first glance this might look like an easy group for us, but I don't see it that way," the coach tells FIFA.com. "For example, two years ago we lost out on a place at the finals to Switzerland on goal difference. Physically speaking, these are also very strong teams," he adds.

With no fewer than six UEFA U-16 titles to his name, Santisteban has made Spain the most successful European side at junior level. However, since the tournament age limit was raised to 17 in 2001, he has not yet managed a repeat of past glories.

"Your past record gives you confidence but also puts you under pressure. Having won those titles makes people expect you to repeat the feat, but I think that would be living in the past. This qualifying phase is in the here and now, and we have high hopes, especially given the fact that we have a very good squad. That said, we'll also need a little bit of luck," says the former Real Madrid player.

Santisteban's charges showed all their potential at a mini-tournament last October in Belgium, where they comfortably saw off the challenge of the hosts (6-1), England (3-2) and Portugal (3-1). "I'm getting a really good feeling about this group of lads. They play with great skill, and that makes me very hopeful," the coach says proudly.

The veteran tactician also admits it can be difficult working with teenagers, especially those who are fighting for their careers. "You have to tread very carefully and treat everyone equally. Having said that, they're very well-mannered kids, and they're well aware of the position they're in and what is needed of them."

The next chance for La Selección to measure their progress will be against Korea Republic , who they will face in two friendly games on 13 and 15 February. Taking on the hosts of next year's FIFA U-17 World Cup should help bring into focus Spain's ultimate goal of appearing in the Far East. "We missed out on the [2005] World Cup in Peru and so we're desperately want to make it to Korea - something I believe we're capable of doing. We have a good squad, although with youngsters there are never any guarantees," he adds.

Promising talents
Some of these young players are already laying the foundations for what looks set to be a top-flight career. A case in point is Fran Merida, the young Catalan midfielder who was one of the stars of Barcelona's youth academy until he was snapped up by Premiership side Arsenal last summer. The move has drawn inevitable comparisons with that of another Camp Nou graduate, Cesc Fabregas, who was incidentally a member of the Spain side that finished runners-up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2003.

Santisteban, for one, has no doubts about Merida's prospects: "Fran is a fantastic player with extraordinary potential. With a bit of luck, he's going to be like Cesc. As well as quality, he possesses great dignity and humility. The education and grooming he's receiving in England are creating the foundations for a magnificent future."

"It's very nice to be compared with him, but it will be very difficult to become like Fabregas," Merida tells FIFA.com, adding, "I'd like to reach his level, but I know I'll have to work very hard to get there." He admits that the decision to switch to English football was a difficult one and that it has taken time to adapt to life there, but he insists he is happy with the chance Arsenal have offered him.

This powerful, attack-minded midfielder says it is an honour to be part of the national team's plans. "A call-up to play for your country is the ultimate, and being here is a privilege. Of course, there is a lot of competition for places, but there's still a great atmosphere in the squad and everyone gets on really well."

A firm believer in the quality of the team and their chances of competing in Belgium, the teenager has the final word, insisting, "We're going to give our all to make it to the finals."