Croatia ended an eight-year wait to reach a second UEFA European Under-17 Championship final tournament as victories against France and Spain clinched elite round Group 1 with a match to spare.
The year Croatia last qualified, 2005, was the only previous time an U17 final tournament had been missing both Spain and France. However, Croatia, hosting the group and overcoming wet conditions, beat Spain 3-2 and France 1-0 to be sure of a place in Slovakia in May. They concluded with a 1-1 draw against Belgium on Tuesday.
"I am proud of my boys, they reached the finals and they did it in a very difficult group with Spain and France in," said Croatia coach Ivan Gudelj, also in charge when they finished fourth eight years ago in Italy. "We deserved to come top and I must say my boys are really great. We are going to the finals in Slovakia with great ambitions, we will try to earn a [FIFA U-17] World Cup spot and even win the European Championship."
On the opening day, Croatia broke the deadlock against Spain on 45 minutes through Petar Mamić. Josip Bašić swiftly added another only for Ivan Šunjić to receive a second yellow card on 49 minutes. Spain substitute Mario González pulled one back but Fran Brodić restored Croatia's cushion. With five minutes to go Ante Roguljić became the second Croatia player dismissed and Adama Traore then reduced Spain's arrears. In a frantic added time period, Spain captain Rodrigo Tarín was sent off and the hosts held on.
France made a fine start, defeating Belgium 4-1 with two Neal Maupay goals, the first on the rebound from his own penalty. However, two days later a Sega Coulibaly own goal ensured Croatia defeated France. That was to prove enough to secure top spot and a berth in the 4 April finals draw in Senec. Belgium's hopes were ended by a 2-1 loss to Spain, José Ángel Pozo striking either side of an Andreas Pereira penalty.
There was consolation for France as they beat Spain 3-2, losing a two-goal lead before Lyes Houri's last-minute winner just after coming on. Croatia drew 1-1 with Belgium, Duje Ćaleta-Car cancelling out Samy Bourard's opener.
Croatia captain Bašić, who stood out along with Alen Halilović, said: "We know that we have a great team and we will not travel to EURO as tourists. We now have big aims and we know how we can play."
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