The battle for European qualifying berths at the FIFA U-17
World Cup Korea 2007 has entered a decisive phase with the start of
the Elite round in UEFA European U-17 Championship qualification.
A total of 28 teams divided into seven groups of four are going in search of seven places at the European finals. The group winners will join hosts Belgium at the contest for the continental crown in early May, where the best five teams will also qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup , to be held from 18 August to 9 September 2007 in Korea Republic.
The Group 6 schedule opens with a clash of the titans between Portugal and European champions Russia, while Northern Ireland take on Iceland. Turkey and the Netherlands, the European Championship final pairing in 2005, join Wales and Belarus in Group 4. The Welsh have yet to appear at the finals but are hoping to spring a surprise this time despite the strength of the competition. Coach Brian Flynn is under no illusions as to the severity of the task: "The Netherlands will be strong as ever, and with Turkey being hosts I'd assume they would be favourites. So it's a tall order for us, but we have a good bunch of players."
Germany host Group 1 and a line-up comprising Ireland, Greece
and Scotland. The German squad is buzzing with belief at the moment
after coach Paul Schomann led his charges to a prestige triumph at
the Algarve Cup tournament. "Our job now is to continue our
momentum in the qualifying round. We're approaching it with
confidence," Schomann declared in an interview with
Over in Group 3, England are seeking to qualify ahead of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Azerbaijan. The English rate as favourites, but coach John Peacock warned his players against complacency: "You should never underestimate any opponents." Peacock's team has been in good shape recently with just two defeats (against Spain and Germany) in their last 13 internationals. England finished runners-up at the Algarve Cup and will be looking to continue their recent progress in the Elite round.
Spain banking on hot-shot Krkic
Group 2 promises a series of tense encounters as Italy, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic duel for honours. The Czechs emerged as the surprise package at the last European Championship with a scintillating run all the way to the Final, where the Russians proved just too strong.
France face Hungary, Norway and Finland in Group 5. The Finns, traditionally strong in this age group and serial qualifiers for the European finals, are keen to extend their fine record by appearing at the 2007 event. "It'll be very difficult in France," coach Timo Liekoski conceded. "But we have a good team. We're worth a goal or two in every game. We're going there in good spirits, and we'll perform to the best of our ability. Whatever happens, it'll be a fantastic experience for my players."
Spain rate as hot favourites in Group 7. The side coached by Juan Santisteban finished third at the last European Championship and now face up to Poland, Switzerland and Sweden in the Elite round. "It's a very tough group," Santisteban reflected, hoping for goals from star striker Bojan Krkic. The Barcelona prodigy finished top scorer at the 2006 European Championship finals with five goals, this at the tender age of 15. "He's one of the best players we've had in recent years. We can look forward to plenty of good things from him," the coach declared admiringly, as his super striker seeks to follow in the footsteps of former Spanish youth stars such as Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres.
UEFA U-17 European Championship qualifying, Elite round: