Spain with something to prove

Spain are one of the world's leading powers at youth level. European champions on no fewer than eight occasions, La Roja have finished runners-up three times at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and also have a third place to their name.

And even through they struggled during qualification this time around, Spain's pedigree is such that they are once again expected to mount a serious challenge when the tournament gets under way on Saturday.

One man keen, however, to play down their status of title candidates is coach Gines Melendez, who was Juan Santisteban's right-hand man at Korea 2007 and who has just taken charge of the side after a spell at the helm of the U-19s.

"I'd prefer it if we weren't favourites," he told before travelling with the team to Nigeria. "In fact, I don't think we are favourites because we didn't have a good European championship. Nigeria will be very serious contenders and Germany and Brazil both have really good teams. Spain might spring a surprise along with one of the South American sides but we'll just be taking it step by step, game by game."

The Spaniards only qualified for Nigeria 2009 after finishing a disappointing third behind Italy and Switzerland in the group phase of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship. In doing so, the men in red drew every game without scoring or conceding a single goal, a record that still has coach Melendez scratching his head in bemusement.

"It was a strange competition," he says. "We had a good team, in fact we still have a good team, but we just didn't have any luck." And as Melendez explains, the statistics seem to bear that out. "We completely dominated our matches. We created 29 chances, nine of them one-on-ones, and we didn't put any of them away. On the plus side we are unbeaten in our last 21 games and in Nigeria we're hoping to get some of the good fortune that deserted us in the European championships."

They're a great bunch of kids who have are desperate to make up for what happened at the European championship. 
Gines Melendez, Spain coach.

Melendez's youngsters have been drawn in Group E alongside USA, United Arab Emirates and Malawi, with all their matches taking place in the city of Kano, in the north of the country.

"They are all going to be tough opponents but on paper the hardest game looks to be the opening one against the Americans," explains the Spanish tactician, looking ahead to the group curtain-raiser on 26 October. "We've already played against them and though we won 2-1, they gave us a lot of problems. It's sure to be a tricky game and it could all depend on who gets the breaks."

Spain will play their matches on the artificial turf of the Sani Abacha Stadium and have been working hard to ensure they are familiar with the conditions they will find in Africa. "We've been playing on similar pitches as part of our preparations and we've also tried to get acclimatised to the weather. Fortunately for us, Nigeria's climate isn't much different to Spain's."

Melendez can also count on several players who already have Spanish first division experience. As well as Marc Muniesa of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid duo Jorge Resurreccion Koke and Borja Gonzalez, Athletic Bilbao's exciting youth academy prospect Iker Muniain has also been mixing with the big boys, becoming the youngest ever player to score a goal in the Spanish top flight only a few weeks ago.

Reluctant to single out individuals, the Spain coach believes all his youngsters deserve their place in the squad. "They are all very good players and I don't see anyone who stands out above the rest. Obviously some of them have already played in the first division and they know what it means to be in the elite. But the most important thing is that they're a great bunch of kids who have are desperate to make up for what happened at the European championship. We didn't deserve that and we want to give it our very best shot in Nigeria."