The 7th UEFA European U-19 Championship kicks off on 14 July in the Czech Republic. Eight European nations will face off in the hope of gaining one of the six European places on offer at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
Reigning champions Spain will be highly favoured again, after they stormed through a qualifying group containing Ukraine, Turkey and Armenia. Coach Ginés Meléndez can still call upon the talents of Aarón Ñíguez, who was a key figure in their 2007 triumph, while Arsenal midfielder Fran Mérida will be another one to watch.
Meléndez is confident that his young troops can take inspiration from the senior side's UEFA EURO 2008 success. "Without a doubt it raises morale, above all because they were guys who were with us for many years and who passed through the youth teams," he remarked, referring, among others, to Fernando Torres, a star of the 2002 event who went on to score the winner for Spain in the EURO 2008 final.
Spain are faced in Group A by Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria. The match against the Germans, Spain's victims in the EURO 2008 final, will no doubt have special significance. Germany coach Horst Hrubesch is certainly convinced that Spain will be tough opponents. "The title will be won only by beating Spain," he stated, adding that his team would be looking to go onto the front foot against Meléndez's artists: "If we just stand there passively and watch them play, we will fail. We must act, not react." Hrubesch will be looking to goals from Stuttgart's Manuel Fischer, joint top scorer at the 2006 U-17 European Championship.
Hungary will not be underestimated by anyone in Group A after knocking out Portugal in qualifying. The Hungarians possess a potential goal machine in Krisztián Németh of Liverpool, who scored the only goal of the game in their crucial game with Portugal, as well as a brace in an earlier 2-1 defeat of Cyprus. Bulgaria will be competing in their first-ever European U-19 finals, but their perfect score in the "Elite" qualifying round will ensure them plenty of respect at the finals.
Group B features hosts Czech Republic, 2007 runners-up Greece, and two traditional heavyweights at senior level, England and Italy. The hosts, of course, were not required to qualify, but Czech coach Jakub Dovalil hopes that his charges' professional experience in the Czech league will make up for any lack of competitive edge. "Our players play regular top-flight football, and have about 30 league games under their belts," he pointed out.
Weight of history
Greece qualified for the tournament with some difficulty, stumbling to a 2-1 loss to Moldova in the final qualifying round, but recovered to defeat the Netherlands and Russia in their final two matches to secure their place at the finals. Panathinaikos's Sotiris Ninis, voted the best player at Austria 2007, will be there again, along with highly-rated AEK Athens defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Although much will be expected of the Greeks given their 2007 results, coach Alexis Alexiou insists that the current crop should not feel the weight of recent history. "This is a different team, and there's no need for them to feel stressed or burdened by the 2007 generation. They should feel free to express themselves."
After failing to qualify for the finals of the previous two competitions, England will be keen to show that they are still a force in this age group. Coach Brian Eastick steered his side through a difficult Elite round group including Poland, Serbia and hosts Belarus to book their ticket to the Czech Republic.
England have been troubled by injuries of late, with captain Ciaran Clark and striker Daniel Welbeck withdrawing from the squad, but Eastick believes that he still has enough talent and experience at his disposal. "The lads that we have brought in since have plenty of experience, and we are going there with what is a very strong group of players."
Like England, Italy have a poor recent record in U-19 qualifying; after taking out the 2003 tournament with a team that included current Azzurri stars Giorgio Chiellini and Alberto Aquilani, they failed to qualify for any of the next four editions of the event. Yet they were imperious in qualifying for Czech Republic 2008, cruising through their initial qualifying group before notching a perfect score in a very strong Elite round group, in which they were faced by France, Switzerland and Sweden.