The 2013 UEFA European U-17 Championship reached its climax on Friday as Russia edged Italy on penalties to claim victory in the final. The Russians were not the only team with something to celebrate in Slovakia, however, as six of the eight sides in the running when the tournament kicked off on 5 May also booked tickets to the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013. In addition to the two finalists, Slovakia, Sweden, Croatia and Austria grabbed berths as well, while Ukraine and Switzerland missed out.
For Russia, the triumph was a repeat of their competition wins in 1985 (as the former Soviet Union) and 2006, and they took the title from 2011 and 2012 victors the Netherlands. They did so from a field of hopefuls that lacked heavyweight regulars Spain, Germany, England and France, but there was nothing straightforward about their success.
The tournament could hardly have been more fiercely contested, in fact, particularly during the group stage, when no team was able to post more than one victory in their three games. FIFA.com rounds up the highlights from the action in Slovakia.
Drawn in Group B, Russia got off to the perfect start by recording the biggest win of the tournament, racking up a 3-0 victory against a Ukraine side who ultimately returned home with zero points. Next up, the eventual winners were held 0-0 by Croatia, before they played out a 1-1 draw with Italy that sent both teams through to the semi-finals.
Sweden lay in Russia's path in the last four and Dmitri Khomukha's charges just about emerged victorious on penalties following a goalless stalemate, winning a thrilling shoot-out contest 10-9. That proved to be the perfect preparation for the final as Russia then repeated the trick in their reunion with Italy, prevailing 5-4 from the spot after another 0-0 draw.
Despite the tension at every step of the way, Khomukha was delighted to see his players pushed to the limit. For the man in the dugout, there could be no better lesson given the challenges that lie ahead. "This is an invaluable experience and there is no substitute for it," he said. "The boys understand what kind of opposition awaits in the future if they play for professional clubs."
As for Italy, they came so close to reacquainting themselves with glory at this level after winning the inaugural edition in 1982 and adding a second title in 1987. "We take away the fact that we played a great European Championship and I think we were the better team, but that was not enough," commented Italy coach Daniele Zoratto.
Second in Group B, the runners-up can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they were the only side to score a goal against the champions, and there was also much to admire about their 2-0 semi-final win against the hosts.
Slovakia have plenty to be pleased about as well, having given a glimpse of their potential in their debut finals appearance. Ladislav Pecko's side topped Group A thanks to a 1-0 success against Austria, a 2-2 draw with Switzerland and a goalless meeting with Sweden, but the loss of defensive duo Andrej Kadlec and Denis Vavro to suspension made their task all the more difficult against Italy in the last four.
Section rivals Sweden likewise made a strong start, seeing off Switzerland 1-0 before a 1-1 draw against Austria and their 0-0 stalemate with Slovakia. That was enough to earn them second spot in Group A, and they went on to give Russia a real scare in the semi-finals. Overall, they caught the eye with their control and determination, allied with an athleticism often associated with Scandinavian teams.
Austria got off to a losing start in Group A but eventually turned things around in their final match, inflicting a 2-1 defeat on Switzerland that brought them third place in the pool and a ticket to UAE 2013. Also made to wait were Croatia, who started off with goalless draws against both the eventual finalists before heaping further misery on Ukraine in a 2-1 victory that sealed their berth in the global showcase.
Ones to watch
No player left a greater mark on the competition than Russia's goalkeeper and captain Anton Mitryushkin. Not only did he concede just one goal throughout, he also performed heroics in the shoot-out against Italy, making the decisive save by denying Andrea Palazzi.
Croatia playmaker Alen Halilovic looks set for a bright future as well, and not least since he has already made his mark at senior level. The 16-year-old is the youngest ever scorer in the Croatian top flight and has also represented Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Champions League.
Austria midfielder Valentino Lazaro made a telling impact by delivering three assists, more than any other player on show. And there was praise too for Atila Varga, who defended stoutly for Slovakia and will now look to prove his worth at club side Juventus, who clinched the Serie A title on the same day Varga helped the hosts see off Austria.
In contrast, no forwards were truly able to take the tournament by storm. Instead, the top of the scoring charts was dominated by defenders such as Slovakia's Martin Slaninka and Elio Capradossi of Italy, both of whom struck two goals apiece.
1 - Slovakia (5 pts) *
2 - Sweden (5 pts) *
3 - Austria (4 pts) *
4 - Switzerland (1 pt)
1 - Russia (5 pts) *
2 - Italy (5 pts) *
3 - Croatia (5 pts) *
4 - Ukraine (0 pts)
* Qualified for UAE 2013
Slovakia 0-2 Italy
Russia 0-0 Sweden (10-9 on penalties)
Italy 0-0 Russia (4-5 on penalties)
All on two goals: Martin Slaninka (Slovakia); Robin Kamber (Switzerland); Elio Capradossi (Italy) and Mario Pugliese (Italy)