After eight days of intense competition, some of Europe’s brightest stars have fought it out for a spot at the UEFA European U-19 Championship, with a mix of big guns and youthful regulars joining hosts Estonia in July’s finals.
France, England, Spain and Portugal are joined by Greece, Serbia and Croatia after a whopping 42 games took place around Europe during the Elite Round of qualifying. Six of the eight competitors will make up UEFA’s contingent at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey too, so there is more than just this summer’s silverware on offer.
Reigning champions Spain may have finished top of Group 7 with a 100 per cent record, but they made heavy weather of their nine points. They managed three 2-1 victories, but had to wait until deep into stoppage time grab a winner against Armenia in their opening game. Two goals in the final 18 minutes dealt group hosts Italy defeat, before a more routine win over Belgium sealed qualification for the Spaniards.
Fellow Iberians Portugal matched their neighbours’ perfect record, but did so with a fair amount more style in Group 4. They got off to a slow and fortuitous start against the Republic of Ireland, though, with an 87th-minute Michael Barker own goal settling the game. They were a different entity against Israel, swatting them aside 7-1 with Sporting CP striker Betinho hitting a brace, before netting again against nearest rivals Ukraine to top the group with a 3-0 win.
In Group 1, France also managed to chalk up 11 goals across three victories, but once again they took time to hit their stride. They found themselves a goal down against group hosts Czech Republic before claiming a 2-1 win, followed by a 3-1 defeat of Norway.
The French youngsters produced arguably the qualification’s stand-out performance in a straight shoot-out with the Netherlands for qualification. The Dutch were already 2-0 down when Ilan Boccara received his marching orders for two bookable offences. Three goals in five minutes put the game beyond doubt before a sixth without reply saw Les Bleus emphatically top the group.
Greece made it through without conceding a goal in a Group 5 with a very local feel, featuring neighbours Turkey and Cyprus alongside Denmark. Two goals from Olympiacos’ Dimitrios Diamantakos set them towards a 3-0 win over Turkey, before Kostantinos Stafylidis repeated the feat as they saw off Cyprus by the same scoreline. The stage was again set for a showdown to see who would reach the finals, and two strikes shortly after half-time were enough to see the Danes off 2-0.
England made to sweat
It was an altogether less smooth journey for England as they made it through Group 2. A resounding 5-0 win over Slovenia began their campaign well, but they needed a late goal from Arsenal’s Benik Afobe to keep pace with Montenegro in a 1-1 draw.
A win against Switzerland would most likely see the Three Lions through, however both final games were tied with ten minutes to go, leaving the group finely balanced. A converted Slovenia penalty shunted the pendulum England’s way, before Saido Berahino scored in stoppage time to settle any nerves for Noel Blake’s table-toppers.
Serbia triumphed in Group 3 as Germany fell to see the group hosts reach their third of the last four tournaments. A 2-2 draw between them allowed Romania to take control after convincingly seeing off Hungary.
A stalemate between the Germans and Romania allowed Serbia’s narrow victory over the Hungarians to put them back in the picture. Needing a draw in the other game, a 3-0 win for Germany meant nothing as Serbia beat an eight-man Romania by the same scoreline, netting two of three penalties awarded to them, to reach Estonia.
Finally, after salvaging a point with a last-minute strike against Austria in their opening fixture, Croatia narrowly saw off the pursuit of Georgia to clinch Group 6. A comfortable 3-1 win over their nearest challengers, where Marko Dugandzic added to his double from their opening game, left them in good stead to see off a pointless Bosnia-Herzegovina and top the table by a point.