As the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship kicks off in Slovakia on Sunday, Group B is set to be a closely-fought affair, with fine margins likely to settle a section containing Italy, Russia, Ukraine and Croatia, all of whom excelled during qualifying.
Few turned quite as many heads as Croatia, who open their campaign against Italy in Nitra. Unbeaten in qualifying, and with the scalps of Spain and France to their name, Ivan Gudelj's side has attracted much attention, but the outstanding results have proved a double-edged sword for the coach.
"The confidence of the players is up after our performances in the elite round – it seems that the bar is raised now," said the former Yugoslavian international, who is now faced with the task of managing expectations within his squad. "My boys are ready. They are well motivated but the most important thing for me is to make them keep their feet on the ground. They need to be calm and without pressure."
Those high expectations could be swiftly checked if Daniele Zoratto's Italy show the kind of form which helped them knock out back-to-back title-winners the Netherlands. "I hope to break our tradition of being defensive and show a lot more going forward," warned the coach, whose close-knit side kept five clean sheets in six qualifiers. "Just like everybody takes part when we attack, everybody defends. The important thing is that Italy, the players, give it all they have got – that they do their best and are exemplary in a sporting sense."
The day's opening game, in Zlate Moravce, sees familiar rivals Russia and Ukraine tussle to find the perfect start. "Though we know each other well, we consider it just a normal game," Ukraine coach Olexandr Holovko said. "We have met twice before, and like them, I expect the best result."
There is no lack of talent in the squad, and the former FC Dynamo Kyiv and Ukraine international knows a good player when he sees one. "At least two or three of them will proceed to higher leagues, even get to the first team at Dynamo. Sure, we will see some players at higher levels in the future – this is the purpose of such a tournament."
In what appears to be such a tight group, Russia's Dmitri Khomukha is hoping his side's tough elite round experience, which included matches against England and Portugal, will stand them in good stead. "Our biggest weapons are team spirit and a strong character, otherwise we would not have made it through the elite round, which we had to play at full throttle," commented the man in charge of the 2006 winners.
"Our goals are the same as for our rivals – we want to reach the next stage of the tournament. These players will have to fight to get out of a complicated group, full of hard teams. This toughness will make them stronger, and they will gain experience to fight at future European Championships."
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