Spain may have qualified for their fourth successive UEFA European Under-19 Championship with a 100% group stage record yet coach Luis de la Fuente believes his team still have room for improvement as they prepare to meet their 2010 conquerors France.
Winners of six of the 11 editions of the tournament and champions for the last two years – beating France on penalties in the last four 12 months ago – the Spanish earned wins against Portugal, hosts Lithuania and the Netherlands to finish top of Group A with maximum points and set up a repeat of the final of three years ago.
Then Les Petits Bleus came from a goal down to win 2-1 and De la Fuente anticipates a similarly tight contest this time around. "We are expecting a game of the highest level; a really competitive match against great rivals," the coach told UEFA.com. "Both sides have shown what they are capable of in this tournament and this will be an evenly contested encounter."
Spain's only injury concern for the semi-final in Kaunas surrounds defender Jaime Sánchez, who picked up an ankle knock during Friday's match against the Netherlands, while France striker Yassine Benzia should be available after suffering concussion against Serbia on matchday three. Calling on his players to increase the intensity from the 3-2 win against the Dutch, De la Fuente is excited by the prospects of his team reaching their full potential against France.
"We have the ability to get better," he said. "I'm satisfied that we won nine points in the group; that was a significant achievement. We are very self-critical and we realise we can improve in certain facets of our play. France are technically very good, have good individuals and are also physically strong and we will need to avoid making mistakes."
The 52-year-old's France counterpart Francis Smerecki was in charge for that 2010 showpiece but expects a different type of game this time around. "A France versus Spain encounter is always one that is highly anticipated," he said. "We will see two teams with different styles. Spain have several players who attack as individuals; France are a very coherent side. Collectively I think we are stronger than them but it will be a very difficult match."
With confidence is high among his unbeaten charges – France drew with Georgia and Serbia and beat Turkey to finish second in Group B – Smerecki is pleased with how his team have developed as the tournament has progressed. "Morale is good," he said. "We have improved a lot physically and I am satisfied with the team in general. This game represents a first semi-final for these players so they are very motivated."
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