Sweden endured a torrid title defence 12 months ago, a 5-0 defeat by Norway sending them home smarting after the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship group stage. Yet after accounting for holders France in qualifying this time around, coach Calle Barrling is confident that his well-versed team can mount a serious challenge in 2014.
"Last season we didn't prepare as well as we did when we won two years ago," said Barrling, who is gearing up for his sixth final tournament. "What happened, for the first time, is that I saw a tired Swedish team in the last game." Indeed, having gone into the final day with hopes of progressing alongside Germany after drawing with Finland before a 2-0 loss to the four-time champions, a tiring side were overwhelmed by Norway, the hosts this summer.
Barrling remained sanguine, pointing out that his team were 18 matches unbeaten before those two reverses – and, he added, it all served as good experience for him and the players. "We learned our lesson and we'll prepare better this time," he said, almost a year on. "We'll have more days together at training camps, and we've had more friendlies including one against Norway in Sarpsborg [a 1-0 defeat in May] so we tried the beds, tested the pitches and learned something about Norway as well."
Sweden will also have a pre-tournament camp at home as Barrling attempts to get the squad at their peak on 15 July, when the finals kick off. They will need to be: England, the side that beat them in the 2009 final, are first up and it does not get any easier with Spain three days later. Yet it is telling that Barrling is just as concerned about their last Group B opponents the Republic of Ireland, final tournament newcomers.
"There are no easy teams in the finals nowadays – nor in the elite round. I think this will go to the bitter end, with really even games. There is England and Spain but we know a lot about Ireland as well. We met them in the second [round of] qualification last year, and again at La Manga this winter [losing 1-0]. They are a difficult team to break down. All in all it's a tough group, but all eight teams this year are really good. It's a wide-open tournament."
Ultimately, it could come down to fine margins and if that is the case then Sweden, who ended France's reign to seal a finals spot, may have the edge. They know the language (Norwegian is similar to Swedish), the food, the artificial pitches and, of course, how to win this trophy. "This squad is better [than last season], but we have never had players this young at the U19s: there are only six or seven born in 1995. They learn every day, they get older every day." Barrling will hope they mature at just the right time.
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