Third time lucky for Spanish youngsters
It was a case of third time lucky for Spain on Sunday as they stormed to success at the UEFA U-17 European Championship in Belgium. After coming off second best against Portugal and France in the 2003 and 2004 finals respectively, Juan Santisteban’s charges kicked the losing habit against England to land a seventh European title in the category.
Captain Ignacio Camacho will now lead his team to Korea Republic for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, where they are sure to be among the favourites. Following a tournament that failed to throw up any real surprises other than the Netherlands’ disappointing showing, the Spaniards will be joined in the Far East by England, France, Belgium and Germany.
The Spanish hero of the hour was Bojan Krkic. After his crucial equaliser in the semis, the Barcelona starlet broke English hearts when he steered home the only goal of the final on 48 minutes. It is not the first time the 16-year-old has made England suffer. His brace helped Spain to a 3-2 win over John Peacock’s side in Belgium last October, and after Sunday’s killer blow the English will no doubt be glad to see the back of him for a little while.
Hampered by the loss of star midfielder Henri Lansbury and stymied by the solid defending and slick passing of their opponents, the men in white came up short in their bid for a first continental title since 1993, when Robbie Fowler and Gary Neville inspired England to the U-18 European crown.
“I’m overjoyed,” declared an emotional Santisteban after securing the trophy. “I’ve been involved in over ten finals with Spanish sides and it’s always an honour to take part in another let alone win it. The team deserves this.”
Although clearly dejected at the final whistle, their defeated opponents can at look forward to a trip to Korea Republic and the opportunity to go one better. “After four semi-finals we finally managed to clear the hurdle and that’s an achievement in itself,” commented a quietly satisfied Peacock. “I’m proud of my players. We’re disappointed to lose but we achieved our objective. We are playing in the U-17 World Cup for the first time and we’ll be going there to win.”
Oh so close for Belgium
Obvious candidates to lift the trophy after easing through the Elite Round with three wins apiece and a solitary goal against, Spain and England could easily have missed out on the final altogether. The eventual champions were only nine minutes away from a semi-final exit against a surprisingly effective Belgium side. Reduced to ten men early in the second half and a goal down after David Rochela had put through his own net on 63 minutes, the Spanish were ultimately indebted to Krkic for his all-important equaliser and keeper David De Gea, who made a decisive save from the hosts’ eighth spot-kick in a tense penalty shootout.
It was a cruel blow for the young Belgians, especially after few people had expected them to advance so far despite their status as hosts. Once the disappointment had subsided, however, coach Bob Browaeys expressed his satisfaction with the progress his young side had made: “Penalties are always a lottery. The luckier side always wins and, well, it just wasn’t to be for us. I’m proud of the way my players performed, though. We achieved what we wanted to achieve and we played better than I expected. With a little patience we can look forward to a bright future.”
France stumble, Germany leave it late
In the other semi-final England squeaked a narrow win over their bogey team France, who adopted a combative approach but were unable to apply the killer touch in front of goal. The Englishmen roared into an early lead thanks to Victor Moses’s 11th minute strike and should have had more to show at the break for their first-half domination. Their failure to do just that meant a uncomfortable second half for Jordan Spence and his team-mates, but despite losing Tristan Plummer, Joseph Mattock and Lansbury to injury, England hung on for a nervy win.
“It’s a pity,” said France coach Francois Blaquart after watching his side go out. “We went missing in the first half and that’s a shame. We were on top in the second but we didn’t take our chances. The high points were beating Germany, reaching the semis and qualifying for the World Cup. Our goal was to reach Korea and we’re delighted to be going there. It’s still a long way away but we’ll be looking to make a mark.”
After finishing third in Group A and being pipped to a semi-final spot by France on goal difference, Germany were forced into a play-off for the fifth and final ticket to Korea 2007. Their opponents were a disappointing Dutch side, who struggled into third place in Group B with a single win to their name (3-0 against Iceland).
With the tournament’s three-goal, joint-top scorer Toni Kroos in their ranks, the Germans had to wait until the closing stages before sealing victory. It was Kroos himself who opened the scoring only for Patrick Van Aanolt and Marko Matic to put the Oranjes in control before the break. Bayer Leverkusen’s Richard Sukuta-Pasu thwarted the Dutch with a second-half brace, however, the winner coming four minutes from time when he latched on to a superb cross from that man Kroos.
The Netherlands’ struggles were the only real surprise of the tournament, although few people tipped Belgium to surge into the last four. The hosts have every reason to be content with emerging from Group B, where they added a 5-1 hammering of Iceland to highly creditable draws with their Dutch neighbours and England.
Tournament makeweights Ukraine and Iceland were the two weakest sides on show and made little impact on proceedings. Although the Ukrainians could at least console themselves with scoring three goals and claiming a draw against France, the unfortunate Icelanders went home pointless after conceding ten goals and scoring just one.
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