After collecting the scalps of former winners France and Spain in the elite round, and making it through qualification undefeated, Croatia have got many people talking up their chances ahead of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals.
Indeed, having ended an eight-year wait to return for a second time to the showpiece, long-serving coach Ivan Gudelj believes he has at his disposal the best generation of talent his country has ever produced. Croatia's first goal is to make it out of a tough Group B, which also includes Italy, Ukraine and Russia, but, should they progress, "anything can happen". "This team can do a lot and I hope they will prove it in Slovakia," said Gudelj.
UEFA.com: Croatia reached the final tournament in Slovakia without a loss in qualifying. How do you rate your achievements so far?
Ivan Gudelj: In the qualifying round, we did not have an easy job. We faced Turkey, Israel and Kazakhstan and we managed to defeat them all. But the real test came in the elite round, where we played against top-class teams like France and Spain, and even Belgium are an excellent team. In front of our fans, we defeated Spain and France and had already secured a spot in the final tournament after two matches. We showed our real quality and it was a confirmation that this team can do a lot.
UEFA.com: Before the elite round started, you already had high expectations. Has that changed now?
Gudelj: No, we are still expecting a lot. I must say that it is much more difficult to compete in the elite round than in the final tournament, as in the elite round only one team from the group can qualify, and the opponents are always strong in that phase. Now we have two goals in front of us. The first one is to qualify for the [FIFA U-17] World Cup and that means we need to be among the top six teams at the European Championship. The second goal is to qualify for the semi-finals. If we manage to do that, everything is possible in the knockout phase.
UEFA.com: Does that mean you believe you can go all the way and win the trophy?
Gudelj: Who knows? I repeat, we have two goals to aim for, but if we manage to go through the group stage, I believe anything can happen. I only know that we have a great team, and excellent players who can do much. And they will be highly motivated. This is a big thing for them. They are well aware that they are among the top teams in Europe.
UEFA.com: What about your opponents in Group B? What are you expecting from those matches?
Gudelj: It is difficult to say that someone is better and someone is weaker in the group. We are playing against top teams who have already shown their strength. Italy knocked out the Netherlands, Russia knocked out England and Portugal, and Ukraine were better than Germany. So all the teams deserve to be here and I am sure we have three excellent matches ahead of us.
UEFA.com: Many observers say that this is the best generation of Croatian footballers of the last 20 years. Do you share that opinion?
Gudelj: I think I do. This is one great generation, with many bright talents who have already found a place in the first teams of their clubs. Do not get me wrong: we always have excellent players and quality teams. For example, only a few players in the senior side did not come through our youth squads, but this team can do a lot and I hope they will prove it in Slovakia. I have been in this role for 16 years and I think these guys are top class. We will have a full team there; we have no injuries and I hope it stays that way so that we'll have an opportunity to show how strong we are.
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