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Match winner Antoine Conte cited France's concentration and clinical efficiency as the decisive factors after Francis Smerecki's side ended Spain's 16-match unbeaten run in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship and broke their grip on the trophy.
Champions in 2011 and 2012 – last year's title being their sixth in 11 U19 competitions – Spain looked set for a fourth successive final when Conte brought down Álvaro Vadillo and José Rodríguez converted the penalty 27 minutes into Monday's semi-final. France swiftly levelled through Yassine Benzia, however, and soaked up the Spanish pressure before Conte capitalised on some uncertain defending to register the winner midway through extra time.
"It was a very good match. Spain kept the ball very well but we concentrated really hard and took our goals well," centre-back Conte told UEFA.com. "There was pressure on our defence, they had a lot of the ball but we had the tactics that we'd worked on with our coach. [They] were to not throw men forward, work hard as a unit, close them down and to communicate. We stuck to that and everything worked out well."
That counterpunching approach paid handsome dividends when Pablo Iñiguez and Borja López failed to clear Kevin Rodrigues's cross in the 105th minute. "When the defender miscontrolled the ball, I collected it and shot," Conte said. "I didn't have time to think about it. I'm very happy to have scored the decisive goal."
Another calm finish had come earlier from a more expected source, Benzia advancing onto Corentin Jean's pass to slot in France's 29th-minute equaliser. "
Happily we scored very quickly after Spain so we were back in the match right away and didn't have any room for doubt," the striker explained. "It was a good pass from Corentin, I got in between the defenders to collect it, then managed to get the shot away."
Benzia echoed Conte's view that France had got their tactics right in Kaunas, adding: "It was a very difficult match against an excellent Spain team who are very good on the ball. We ran a lot and stuck to the coach's game plan and that paid off. The teams were well matched and the difference was in the little details. We're super happy to have got the win, we've all got smiles on our faces."
France now face a final against a Serbia side who eliminated Portugal on penalties and, with both semi-finals having lasted at least 120 minutes, recuperation will be vital. "Extra time is always difficult," Conte said. "
We're going to work on our recovery, that starts right away. We've got two days to do that before the final."
The finalists shared a 1-1 Group B draw on matchday three – although with Serbia resting six players, the relevance of that fixture as a guide for Thursday's final in Marijampole is questionable. "Serbia are a good team [but] that was a group match to decide first place," Conte said. "This is a final and it will be a different game although we already know each other."
Les Petits Bleus were the last team to lift the trophy before Spain's run of success, defeating the Iberian side in the 2010 showpiece in Normandy – when Smerecki was again in charge. The players are clear what must be done if they are to reclaim the prize here in Lithuania. "We have to give everything and produce another performance like this," said Conte. Benzia added: "We have to stay tight as a unit and fight for every ball, don't lose our shape and stay solid. If we do that, things will go well."
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