Hosts Hungary will look to earn a return to the finals of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship when they stage elite round Group 3, but they know to expect a tough contest from Sweden, Finland and a battling Belarus side.
Last in the finals in 2006, Hungary finished top of their qualifying group courtesy of a 3-2 victory against Italy, who have since reached the finals. And after their most recent warm-up matches against Slovakia, coach István Pisont said the challenge for his side ahead of the elite round was to rediscover their autumn form. "This period now is very important for the players as they look to hit top form, because in that respect, there is still work to be done," he said. "All three of our upcoming opponents come from genuine footballing cultures so it will be very difficult – and a real achievement – to qualify."
Qualifying round: Liechtenstein 5-0, Albania 1-0, Italy 3-2 (Group 8 winners)
Key players: Donát Zsótér (forward, Budapest Honvéd FC), Csaba Spandler (defender, Puskás Ferenc Labdarúgó Akadémia), Barnabás Rácz (midfielder, Illés Akadémia).
Sweden shared first place with the Republic of Ireland in their qualifying group after the sides finished level on points and goal difference. Sweden travelled to Cyprus in early March for two matches against the Cypriot U18 team: they won the first 1-0 and drew the second 2-2. Sweden have yet to qualify for a final tournament at this level, but coach Roland Larsson – who has managed Sweden U17s since 1998 – fancies his side's chances. "We are getting closer to the best nations with every new crop of players," he said. "Our elite round group this time looks very evenly balanced on paper. We will be going there with high hopes."
Qualifying round: Republic of Ireland 1-1, Romania 2-1, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 4-0 (Group 10 joint winners)
Key players: Elias Andersson (midfielder, Helsingborgs IF), Gentrit Citaku (midfielder, IFK Norrköping), Isak Ssewankambo (midfielder, Chelsea FC)
Coach Ilkka Mäkelä believes his side are ready for the upcoming challenge despite a 3-1 defeat against the Netherlands in a friendly game in early March. "We now know what the absolutely top quality sides are like having played against the Dutch and especially against Germany in qualification," he said. "It does not get any tougher." Mäkelä feels hosts Hungary and Sweden are the favourites. "We can cause both those sides problems," he said. "Qualifying will be tough, of course, since only the group winners will make it." Finland have had some injury worries, and Mäkelä left four places open when releasing his squad. "We have to make sure we have 18 players, who are all fully match-fit for the tournament," he said.
Qualifying round: Andorra 3-0, San Marino 5-0, Germany 1-8 (Group 2 runners-up)
Key players: Aleksi Ojanperä (defender, TPS Turku), Fredrik Lassas (midfielder, HJK Helsinki), Richard Jensen (forward, FC Twente)
Belarus hosted the annual Minsk friendly tournament in January but won just one of their four matches, 3-0 against Lithuania, following defeats against Georgia (2-0), Belgium (3-2) and Ukraine (2-0). A lack of leaders on the pitch has been cited as a problem, but coach Viktor Goncharenko – not to be confused with his FC BATE Borisov namesake – saw positives too. "Maybe we do not excel in terms of top-class skills, but all the lads are real fighters," he said. "I would follow them into combat blindfold – any one of them. Our opponents are very strong teams, but reaching the finals is possible since we do not have to play any really big sides."
Qualifying round: Moldova 1-0, Armenia 5-0, Serbia 0-7 (Group 1 runners-up)
Key players: Ilya Kostyushkin (defender, FC Minsk), Aleksandr Pavlovets (defender, FC BATE Borisov), Evgeni Shevchenko (forward, FC Minsk)
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