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Croatia host Spain, France and Belgium

Published: Wednesday 20 March 2013, 9.50CET
Former winners Spain and France, plus a Belgium side with a tournament victory under their belt, are in elite round Group 1 hosted from Thursday by a strong Croatia squad.
by Elvir Islamović, Berend Scholten, Christian Châtelet, Paul Bryan
Croatia host Spain, France and Belgium
Spain are aiming for a third U17 title ©Dragomir Stoyanov
Published: Wednesday 20 March 2013, 9.50CET

Croatia host Spain, France and Belgium

Former winners Spain and France, plus a Belgium side with a tournament victory under their belt, are in elite round Group 1 hosted from Thursday by a strong Croatia squad.

With former UEFA European Under-17 Championship winners Spain and France – plus a Belgium side with a tournament victory under their belt – in elite round Group 1, strong contenders for the finals in Slovenia should emerge from a section hosted by Croatia.

Croatia (hosts)
Croatia may be in "the most difficult group of all", according to coach Ivan Gudelj, but they have home advantage and a talented squad including midfield prospects Alen Halilović and Josip Bašić. "Although we are playing against former world and European champions nobody can say they are favourites against Croatia," Gudelj said.

"Anyone can reach the final tournament from this group and they will be among the favourites to win the European Championship. This is a big challenge for my boys, we have a high-quality team, but I don't want to put any pressure on them. Let them show their quality."

GNK Dinamo Zagreb defender Hrvoje Džijan and forward Robert Murić are injured, but that will not stop Croatia from attracting large crowds to each game.

Qualifying round: Israel 4-2, Kazakhstan 2-0, Turkey 4-3 (Group 12 winners)

Key players: Alen Halilović (midfielder, GNK Dinamo Zagreb), Josip Bašić (midfielder, HNK Hajduk Split), Frane Vojković (midfielder, HNK Hajduk Split), Fran Brodić (forward, GNK Dinamo Zagreb)

Belgium
Belgium warmed up with victory in the annual Minsk tournament in January by beating Russia in the final on penalties, having defeated Georgia 3-2, Lithuania 1-0 and Belarus 3-2. In February they played two friendlies against Norway, drawing 1-1 and losing 3-1. Coach Bob Browaeys, who used the games to experiment, said: "We are in the strongest group, against three top European nations. This could have been a final tournament group, but it will be a beautiful experience and a huge challenge for the players in which they will learn a lot."

Qualifying round: Lithuania 2-0, Latvia 5-0, Netherlands 1-2 (Group 3 runners-up)

Key players: Zakaria Bakkali (forward, PSV Eindhoven), Charly Musonda (midfielder, Chelsea FC), Pieter Mariën (defender, Club Brugge KV)

Spain
Following a closely-contested qualifying round campaign in which Spain finished level on points with Bulgaria and Poland but only went through as one of the two best third-placed teams, Santi Denia put his players through several tough preparatory sessions. That included a 1-0 friendly win away to Italy and a scoreless draw against a Club Atlético de Madrid youth side in blizzard conditions.

Speaking about his team's lack of goals in qualifying – Spain registered three in three games – Manchester City FC striker José Ángel Pozo said: "We must take advantage of our chances [in the elite round]. In the games up until now we have been solid defensively, but up front we should have scored more. The first match in Croatia will be all important in terms of gaining confidence."

Qualifying round: Azerbaijan 2-0, Bulgaria 0-1, Poland 1-0 (Group 4 third place)

Key players: Antonio Marín (defender, UD Almería), Pedro Chirivella (midfielder, Valencia CF), José Ángel Pozo (forward, Manchester City FC)

France
Nine years after their victory on home soil and five since reaching their last final in Turkey, France aim to make the showcase again and are on a run of four wins without conceding. The qualifying round was far tougher, with a loss to Slovenia and a draw with Greece forcing the Mini-Bleus into second place in Group 5 in September. "We have to work offensively and manage to get a more stable defence," said coach Patrick Gonfalone. "But I see a huge potential in this squad."

FC Metz's Gnaly Cornet has scored half of their 14 goals this season. OGC Nice's Neal Maupay became on 15 December the second youngest scorer in Ligue 1 and midfielder Kingsley Coman is Paris Saint-Germain FC's youngest league player.

Qualifying round: Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-1, Slovenia 0-1, Greece 2-2 (Group 5 runners-up)

Key players: Nicolas Senzemba (defender, FC Sochaux-Montbéliard), Angelo Fulgini (defender, Valenciennes CF), Kingsley Coman (midfielder, Paris Saint-Germain FC), Gnaly Cornet (forward, FC Metz), Neal Maupay (forward, OGC Nice).

Last updated: 20/03/13 9.43CET

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