No surprises on the sand in Europe

Action photo of the match between Russia and Switzerland (6-5), the final of the UEFA Beach Soccer Qualifier played in Jesolo, Italy, September 14, 2014 (Photo:
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Reigning two-time world champions Russia underlined their current dominance on the sand by winning the UEFA qualifying competition for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015, the first time they have won the continental tournament. Joining them at next year’s world finals will be fellow regional powerhouses Switzerland, Italy and Spain. rounds up events at the 24-team competition, which was held in the Italian town of Jesolo on 5-15 September.

The champions
Russia achieved their objectives by qualifying for Portugal 2015 and winning a title that just eluded them in 2009 and again in 2013, when they lost both finals to Spain. Tactical discipline and physical strength were the keys to the Russians’ triumph, and though they scored only 28 goals – the lowest tally of the four qualifiers – they did enough to win all their games in normal time, something beyond the reach of Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

The Russians also kept two clean sheets in conceding a mere 13 goals, a figure almost unheard of at this level. And while they failed to win any of their games by more than three goals, only Belarus in the first group phase, Germany in the second and semi-final opponents Italy managed to push them hard, though they almost let slip a 4-0 lead against the Swiss in the final, eventually running out 6-5 winners.

The other qualifiers
As expected, the champions will be joined in Portugal by* Switzerland*. Absent from Tahiti 2013, the 2009 world finals runners-up owe their return to the big stage to their attacking power, top-scoring in the preliminaries with 53 goals. Despite posting big wins over Slovakia and France in the opening group phase and England in the second, the Swiss had to dig deep to reach the final. Their toughest test came in the semis against Spain, a game they won 5-4 in extra time after conceding a late equaliser in normal time. Their eventual second place was their best ever performance in the qualifiers, eclipsing the third they achieved in the preliminaries for the 2009 finals.

The last place on the podium was taken by* Italy, another side who missed out on Tahiti 2013. For *La Azzurra qualification has gone some way to atoning for their last-16 exit to unfancied El Salvador when hosting the world finals at Ravenna 2011. The Italians found themselves under pressure on several occasions, especially in the second group phase, needing penalties to beat Poland and scoring twice late on to down Belarus 4-2 and clinch their place at Portugal 2014. Though beaten 5-3 by the Russians in the semis, the hosts have every reason to be pleased with their efforts even if their goal difference of +13 was the lowest of the four qualifiers, behind Russia’s +15, Spain’s +21 and Switzerland’s +30.

Runners-up to Russia at Tahiti 2013, *Spain *had to call on all their individual strengths to secure their ticket to Portugal. Buoyed by their Euro Beach Soccer Cup win a few weeks ago, La Roja eased through the first group phase before edging out France in a nine-goal thriller, a vital win that preceded a heart-stopping duel with Ukraine, who almost knocked the Spanish out in normal time and then on penalties. The men in red held firm, however, to win the shootout 4-3 after a thrilling 6-6 draw. Though they forced extra time at the end of another tense tussle with the Swiss in the semis, they eventually went down 5-4. Tired by their previous exertions, the Spanish conceded twice in the last minute in losing the match for third place to the Italians.

Star players *The mainstay of Russia’s iron-like defence was their flamboyant goalkeeper *Andrey Bukhlitskiy. That said, they showed plenty of resolve elsewhere on the pitch, thanks in the main to defender Yury Krasheninnikov and striker Anatoliy Peremitin, their leading scorer with seven goals.

The tournament’s most outstanding goalkeeper was Switzerland's Valentin Jaggy, who conceded 23 goals in all, the second-lowest total in the competition, while their tireless pivot Dejan Stankovic outscored everyone with 21, three more than Romania’s Marian Maciuca.

Italy boasted the most valuable player in wide man Dario Ramacciotti, who contributed eight goals to their run to third place, while their leading marksman was Gabriele* Gori* with 12 goals. Finally, Spain’s stand-out performers were once again goalkeeper Dona, defender Juan Manuel and the pivot Llorenc Gomez, third in the overall scoring charts with 17 goals.

The stat
601 - the number of goals scored in the competition’s 76 matches, an average of 7.9 per game. While that figure is 0.02 percent more than the average for the Tahiti 2013 qualifiers, it is still some way down on the preliminaries for Ravenna 2011 and Dubai 2009, when the respective goals-per-game averages were 8.73 and 8.65.

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