As if Spanish football was not dominant enough, they begin their UEFA European Under-19 Championship title defence with Julen Lopetegui hoping his players can improve, an assertion that drew gasps from his Group A coaching rivals from hosts Estonia, Greece and Portugal.
Spain begin against Greece in Haapsalu on Tuesday, while Estonia, in their first UEFA final tournament at any level, are up against Portugal. While Lopetegui is crossing his fingers that his young charges can emulate the success of their senior counterparts at UEFA EURO 2012, Estonia’s Arno Pijpers summed up the feeling of the rest when joking, “The last thing any of us need is for them to improve.”
A former Spain goalkeeper, Lopetegui was with his U19 squad – including several of the party that triumphed in Romania last summer – when they celebrated Sunday’s Kyiv win against Italy from base camp in Tallinn. The 45-year-old said the game acted as a “motivation” for his players as they prepare to defend their title.
“What we witnessed was a good example for our young stars as it not only showed them that they can win but more importantly, how they can win,” he said. Assessing the difficult task his side face in adding a sixth U19 title to the trophy cabinet, Lopetegui said, “Every team in this tournament is strong and all are here having come through very hard qualifying games.
“We are witnessing a very good period for Portuguese and Greek youth development while Estonia have improved a lot recently and their knowledge of the surroundings here will obviously stand to them.”
Kostas Tsanas is leading a Greece team into their fourth finals appearance in six years and their record in qualifying – where they remained unbeaten while winning five out of six games – is a cause for concern to all of their tournament rivals. However, they are without suspended duo Dimitris Kourmpelis and Kostas Stafylidis.
“We are among the best eight teams in Europe and we want to show that we deserve to be here,” Tsanas said. “We are playing against sides with a great tradition in youth football but we will look to be competitive.”
Pijpers – who only took over the Estonia team in March – said his players need to focus on the performances as opposed to fretting over results. “This is a big challenge for us and it is important that we are going to compete in a big tournament with strong opponents,” he said. “We want show that we can play. We must work hard on every level and the coaches who were here before me did a good job in that aspect.”
Estonia’s first task at their Lilleküla Stadium will be to halt Portugal who completed qualifying as top scorers with 29 goals. Their coach Edgar Borges said the aim of his team was “the same as everyone else, to do well and try to qualify for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup” by finishing in the top three in the group.
He continued: “Every match here will be a final as we are playing against the best nations at this age level. Very small details will decide the outcome of these games but what is important for us is that we have a strong team identity.”
As they gathered ahead of Tuesday’s Group B openers, the coaches of Serbia, Croatia and France agreed with England’s Noel Blake, who said: “There are no easy games here.”
As they prepare their respective teams for the challenges that await in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Estonia, all four Group B coaches admitted nothing could be taken for granted from this point on.
Forcing home the point ahead of his team’s return to the tournament after a one-year absence was England’s Noel Blake, whose side open against 2010 semi-finalists Croatia in Kadriorg. “If there is anyone out there who thinks you just turn up here to play in easy matches they are plainly mistaken,” said the former Portsmouth FC and Leeds United AFC defender.
“There are eight nations here including the hosts and all of the coaches who had to qualify their teams for the finals will tell you just how hard that process was. I am expecting tough encounters from here on in.”
Without several players who have made the step up to the Under-21s, Blake still has ten members of the squad which won the 2010 UEFA European Under-17 Championship squad at his disposal. He is hoping the experience of that success in Liechtenstein will help England, who were unbeaten in the elite round.
“The guys have good strength and the technical ability is also there,” he said. “People say the English might not do certain things as well as other countries, but we are always striving to get better tactically. I have been pleased with how the group has been taking shape both tactically and physically up until now.”
Croatia, meanwhile, also avoided defeat in the elite round and are in Estonia hoping to better that 2010 performance. “I hope my players play with the same ambition as Spain did in UEFA EURO 2012,” coach Dinko Jeličić said ahead of their Group B opener. “Spain changed their tactics throughout the tournament but their principles remained the same and that’s what I will try to teach my players.”
Croatia’s progress in 2010 was checked by France, who went on to win the title on home soil. After missing out on the finals in Romania last year, coach Pierre Mankowski has returned the two-time winners to Europe’s top table.
“We hope to go as far as we possibly can here but the most important thing is the project which sees the players learning to live and improve together both on and off the field,” he said. “This is a long competition so it’s also important to have a good squad of 18 players so you can field a good team each time.”
Despite admitting his side “are not favourites” to claim glory in Estonia, Serbia coach Zoran Marić said the goal was to “achieve a historical success for Serbian football by qualifying for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time.”
Serbia reached the finals for the second successive time after topping an elite round section that contained Germany, Romania and Hungary. Their coach is an eyeing a repeat of 2009 and 2011, when they reached the last four on each occasion. “I think the differences between the sides here are not all that great and it could be the smaller teams who have the final say,” he said.
16:30 England U19 – Croatia U19 1 @ 1,75
16:30 Greece U19 – Spain U19 Spain -1ah @ 1,95
17:45 Serbia U19 – France U19 -1ah france @ 2,03
19:45 Estonia U19 – Portugal U19 -1,5ah Portugal @ 1,75