Qualifying for the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship resumes this week, with 30 teams preparing to continue their bids for a place in the Czech Republic. Though a few sides are not yet past the halfway point in their qualifying programmes, others are already on the brink of booking their places in the play-offs. Following the three-and-a-half-month hiatus, UEFA.com recaps the major movers, shakers and headline-makers from the campaign so far.
The sight of holders Spain with six wins from six Group 4 games comes as little surprise. Indeed qualification is nearly in sight for Julen Lopetegui's side, once again spearheaded by Álvaro Morata, who has struck eight times in qualifying having claimed the adidas Golden Boot with four goals at this summer's finals in Israel. La Rojita, though, are not the only team with an unblemished record, with Portugal and France also flawless so far.
England endured a miserable tournament in Israel which culminated in a defeat by the hosts that ensured they headed home without a point to their name. That spelt the end of Stuart Pearce's six-year reign and the appointment of former senior international defender Gareth Southgate. The signs since have been hugely promising, with the Three Lions unbeaten and top of Group 1 having scored more goals (23) and conceded fewer (1) than any other side in qualifying.
Though Southgate's men and Spain have been impressive, it has not been all plain sailing for those countries who took part in Israel in June. For example, Italy – beaten 4-2 by Spain in the Jerusalem showpiece – are languishing in third in Group 9, four points off the summit. Norway and Israel, meanwhile, are off Portugal's pace in Group 8. Germany have been typically convincing in Group 6, with the Netherlands and Russia pushing hard to reach the peak in their respective pools.
The Jong Oranje are chasing Slovakia in Group 3. Ivan Galád's team – absent from U21 final tournaments since the turn of the century – have picked up 13 points from their opening six fixtures. Much could be decided by their final-day duel with Albert Stuivenberg's troops on 8 September. Croatia, meanwhile, lead the way in Group 5, six points clear of Switzerland albeit having played a game more. Can they last the distance?
Morata may have been an expected star of qualifying, yet few would have predicted the name of the only player ahead of him in the scoring charts. Poland's Arkadiusz Milik has already found the net nine times, scoring his first two professional hat-tricks in the space of five days against Malta and Greece this week. "I was told by journalists I am doing even better than Álvaro Morata from Real Madrid," he said. "It is a very nice situation because we all know how good he is." Milik's exploits have helped Poland to the head of Group 7.
There is little doubt that the Belgian senior side are a 'golden generation' of players who could make a serious impact at next summer's FIFA World Cup. Considering the talent at Marc Wilmots's disposal – Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini to name but three – Belgium might be well advised to make maximum use of their current crop. However, the sight of Johan Walem's U21 squad at the Group 9 summit indicates that the future could be brighter still.
Rarely can an U21 qualifying campaign have thrown up a more heartwarming tale than that of the Babunski clan. Coached by father Boban, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia started against Azerbaijan last Friday with Babunski brothers David and Dorian in the XI – the first ever father-son combination for the Balkan outfit. "A few years ago, football was the reason we were apart as a family, but now it's the reason we're together again and that's made us very happy," said David.
The Czech Republic played eight friendlies in 2013, rounding off with a 3-0 win in Cyprus and a 2-2 draw with an England XI. The 2015 hosts' most impressive result was a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in August. Coach Jakub Dovalil has cast his net far and wide but knows there is work still to do. "We need to improve our interplay and counterattacking," he said. "We are still looking for forwards who are scoring goals in the Czech top flight or second tier."
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