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England, runners-up in 2009, Ukraine, beaten finalists five years ago, and Spain – boasting impeccable youth football pedigree – may immediately catch the eye in Group B of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, but the Czech Republic enter the tournament on the back of the most impressive qualifying campaign.
Jakub Dovalil's side were the only unbeaten team en route to Denmark, collecting 22 points from their eight Group 5 games in the qualifying round before a comfortable 5-0 aggregate victory against Greece in the play-offs. Bidding to win the competition for the second time following their success in 2002, the Czechs are quietly confident after naming senior internationals such as Tomáš Pekhart, Marek Suchý and Lukáš Mareček in their squad.
"We qualified as the best European team, but that is in the past now," said Dovalil. "We must look forward, and our ambition is to qualify for the semis. It will be difficult, as we are in a tougher group than Group A, but I think we will make it."
They begin their quest to reach the last four on Sunday against Ukraine, who lost to Netherlands in the 2006 showpiece. "Ukraine are going in the right direction," said coach Pavlo Yakovenko. "The professional qualities of the players is growing."
The other opening encounter in the section sees England renew acquaintances with Spain, who they defeated 2-0 at this stage in 2009. With the tournament experience of 2010 FIFA World Cup winners Javi Martínez and Juan Mata at his disposal, however, coach Luis Milla is hopeful of a first U21 crown for his country since the turn of the century.
Shorn of Kieran Gibbs, Micah Richards, Andrew Carroll and Jack Wilshere, England are nevertheless in high spirits. "Playing Spain in your first game is going to be really tough," Manchester United FC defender Chris Smalling told UEFA.com. "But hopefully we can get that win that can really kick us on."
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