Saturday 09 July 2016, 19:19

European elite target first Korean tickets

While UEFA EURO 2016 may be coming to a crescendo in France, over in Germany some aspiring young counterparts are limbering up to get the action going in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship.

After negotiating through the Elite Round, eight sides – split into two groups of four – will battle it out, with five spots on offer at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.

Having seen their senior side compete for the top honours on the continent, Portugal’s youngsters will need to refocus as they are in action on the tournament’s opening day on 11 July, with the final coming on 24 July. The competition kicks off mirroring one of EURO 2016’s quarter-finals, though, as Italy take on hosts Germany, with Austria following up against Portugal in a competitive Group A. With Croatia, England, France and the Netherlands making up an equally intriguing Group B, there looks to be little room for error among the various competitors.

Despite this formidable field, Germany coach Guido Streichsbier is entering the fray with expectations of their side at least returning to the U-20 World Cup, having reached the quarter-finals at New Zealand 2015.  “We go into the first game against Italy with a lot of enthusiasm and self-confidence,” he insisted. “With the U-19 EURO also acting as a U-20 World Cup qualifier, this is our minimum goal and our first priority.”

However, they will have to contend with an Italian side sporting ‘the new Pirlo’ in Manuel Loccatelli, who has risen through the ranks at AC Milan to make his debut last season. However, Gli Azzurri can arguably count themselves lucky to be in Germany. They almost threw away their place at the finals in the dying seconds of qualification, discarding a two-goal lead over Turkey in their last game to sneak through on goal difference.

Portugal, who begin against an Austria side who went through the Elite Round with a perfect record, are built on a spine of Benfica starlets who have made the U-19 side their own since reaching the semi-finals of the U-17 EURO in 2014. The likes of Aurelio Buta competed in the tournament alongside now-Bayern Munich midfielder Renato Sanches, who has lit up EURO 2016, and has eyes on a trip to the U-20 global finals next year.

“We’re aiming to go as far as possible and, of course, also have the ambition to participate in Korea Republic,” Buta said. “I think we deserve it because we have worked hard and fought over the past few years.”

Intriguing Group B bound to be competitive In Group B, England arrive in Germany with some pedigree, having finished that same U-17 EURO with their hands on the trophy, while Aidy Boothroyd’s side pipped Spain in qualifying to make it to these finals. They also have plenty of the key figures from that previous triumph in tow, including Chelsea’s Dominic Solanke and Tottenham Hotspur’s Josh Onomah, as well as revelations from last season in Reece Oxford and Sheyi Ojo.

The Netherlands were the beaten team in that U-17 final and include in their ranks Jari Schuurman, who matched Solanke’s tournament-leading tally of four goals. They are led by former Oranje international Aron Winter, who starred in the Dutch midfield at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA and France 1998.

Another with a link to the latter tournament can be found in the French side in the shape of forward Marcus Thuram – son of 1998 winner Lillian – but one of their principle threats comes in the shape of Ludovic Blas. Les Bleuets warmed up for the tournament at the Suwon Cup in Korea Republic but, besides an impressive hat-trick for Blas in a win over Japan, defeats to the hosts and Brazil may have dented morale.

Warm-up wins for Croatia see them head to Germany in higher spirits, while with a selection of faces that will be familiar to any viewers of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015, as eight of their preliminary squad were among the side that reached the quarter-finals in Chile. One of them is Davor Lovren, brother of Liverpool’s Dejan, who is anticipating a serious challenge over the coming fortnight.

"The group is very difficult,” Davor admitted, “but we will do our best to prepare well and to achieve the best ranking we can. Certainly it is our intention to qualify for the World Cup and then to try to go on and finish as best we can."

Some sides could achieve that first goal of booking their ticket to Korea Republic by as early as 14 July.