It was not to be for Croatia and Ukraine at the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship as both sides missed out on the semi-finals after coming up short in Group B.
However, despite their trophy hopes disappearing early, the two teams provided plenty of entertainment in Slovakia. As a result, coaches Ivan Gudelj and Olexandr Holovko may be going home empty-handed, but they will make their return journeys with plenty of food for thought.
Few who saw Croatia failed to come away impressed, their skilful and intelligent style of play helping them dictate the pace in all three games. An inability to convert chances against Russia and Italy, who went on to progress, nonetheless proved crucial, with the side taking third despite finishing level on points with the top two.
"When we started qualifying for this competition, if somebody had told me that we would be in the top six and reach the World Cup, I would have signed up for that immediately," said coach Gudelj, looking on the bright side. The former HNK Hajduk Split midfielder was unable to completely clear his mind of what-ifs, however. "We outplayed all our opponents, so that is why I have reason to be sad. This generation is excellent; all my players deserve congratulations."
The final table shows Ukraine finished a long way off the final four, failing to record a point from their three games. Despite that, the standings do not tell the full story, with Holovko's men taking a lead in the games against both Italy and Croatia, while they were the better team in the opening half of their meeting with Russia.
The need to convert good positions into victories is something Holovko hopes will be just one of several important lessons that his young side, and Ukrainian football, can take from the event. "The competition is not just a plus for the players but for Ukrainian football. Nobody at home can give the lessons that we learned from our opponents; they show us where we are short. I am happy we were able to participate."
Ukraine's star man, Olexandr Zinchenko, agreed with his coach. "At such a young age, this is an invaluable experience. It is real international level football. I have not experienced anything like it in my career so far, and it is the same for my team-mates."
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