There are sure to be a number of stars-in-the-waiting gracing Dutch fields next June. And the top teenagers of Spain and Ukraine, who entertained a noisy crowd in sunny Lausanne with a four-goal semi-final thriller in the UEFA U-19 Championship - eventually decided, via penalties, in the Iberians favour - look set to be among the most lauded and applauded.
While Ukraine's progress through to Europe's best four has turned quite a few heads, that of Spain, almost perennial favourites at junior and youth UEFA competitions, has been as smooth and slick as their passing. Their recent coaches Juan Santisteban, Inaki Saez and now Armando Ufarte have piled up enough trophies to reward the Spanish Federation's (RFEF) investment in the youth system and its commitment to the beautiful game. Raul, Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas have all excelled in recent competitions but teamwork has always been the Spanish buzzword and Ufarte's youths of 2003/4 rely on togetherness most.
Top and bottom
Averaging three strike per match, Spain were easily the top goalscorers of the Swiss competition, while Ukraine had hit just one - Artem Milevskyy, for a crucial three points versus champions Italy - to sit alongside their two goalless draws in the group phase. The Eastern Europeans had already overcome France and England in the preliminary phases with similar stingy displays.
Under a burning sun, the Furia Roja asserted their authority early and went ahead through Spain's "punta", main striker, Victor. The Mallorcan, a big burly rather unSpanish-like forward, climbed highest at a set piece to steer in a firm header for his third goal of the finals and the first Ukraine had conceded. With some neat control and ability to set up others, Victor would go on to prove there is much more to his game than his physical presence, though without really threatening again. However his replacement, Real Madrid's shaven-headed Soldado, did. Adding extra movement, a streak of cheekiness and eye for goal, he gave Spain the advantage seconds into extra-time with a simple tap in following the most awful of horrendous errors from Ukraine's goalkeeper Bohdan Shust.
The best forward of the semi-final though had to be Ukraine's Artem Milevskyy. Standing well over six feet, the Dynamo Kyiv teenager, one of 14 in the squad from that famous club, was head and shoulders above the pack and combined power with grace to unsettle the Spanish rearguard and help swing the tie in his team's favour.
|Ukraine's U-19 team|
|Courtesy of Football Federation of Ukraine|
Ukraine's other central midfielder Oleksandr Aliyev, though, was just as dogged but with a shot that would dent lead. With a wonderful one-handed save, the excellent Ribas had already caused Aliyev, another Kyiv player, to grasp what he could of his crew-cut locks seconds before the interval. But the goalkeeper from Espanyol, the team with six, the most, players in the Spanish squad, was doing his own Scream impersonation after another Aliyev rocket took a chunk out of the wall before hitting the roof of the net for the equaliser on 66 minutes.
Ufarte, not to mention Valencia coach Claudio Ranieri, has an embarrassment of riches on the left side of midfield. The more meaty Gavilan and still growing Silva, who both impressed greatly at the past two FIFA U-17 World Championships in Trinidad & Tobago and Finland respectively, showed their games had matured nicely, though they seemed to have misplaced their shooting boots as one and then the other wasted glorious one-on-one chances to settle the match.
In fact it was Ukraine's own left-footed substitute Konstyantyn Kravtchenko who helped carry the game back towards the East Europeans. After several dazzling bursts past a seemingly tired defence, the tall, dynamic midfielder from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk beat off the attentions of Aliyev to take a 35-yard free kick. His wicked effort moved so violently in the air, Ribas had to throw himself back to the middle of the goal to spectacularly save before Oleksandr Yatsenko shushed the heavily Spanish support in Lausanne with a deft headed finish.
"They (Ukraine) are an extremely well drilled side with enough ability to get past some of the best teams in Europe. We knew they would be dangerous," said the Brazil-raised Ufarte, still kicking every ball from the bench.
"To reach the semi-final of any tournament is a big achievement," said Ukraine coach Pavlo Yakovenko. "This is a great boost for Ukrainian football."
The penalty shootout, won easily by Spain, separated the teams, of course, but the ability of the players on watch in this semi-final proves that there will be much more excitement to come in the Netherlands between 10 June and 2 July 2005.