Italy go into Friday's UEFA European Under-17 Championship final bidding to win a maiden U17 title while opponents Russia are eyeing a second continental success at this level.
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Friday's 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship final in Zilina brings down the curtain on the tournament, but Italy coach Daniele Zoratto hopes the title-decider with Russia merely marks a new dawn for the Azzurrini.
With Italy four times world champions at senior level, it is hard to believe this month's continental tournament in Slovakia represents the first time an Italian side has reached the final in this category. The success may not be a one-off either, with the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) having established a clearly defined project masterminded by Arrigo Sacchi, who took Italy to the 1994 FIFA World Cup final having won back-to-back European Champion Clubs' Cups with AC Milan.
"This is only the beginning; it's not a point of arrival, it's not an objective. It would be great if there was something to come after this," said Zoratto, whose team's achievements have pricked the curiosity of their compatriots. "To reach the final and know people are talking about us is great. When you are in the final and people are interested, it shows we have awoken the nation's interest."
Since showing their defensive strength in containing Croatia's formidable attack in their opening Group B game, Zoratto's side have been more ambitious going forward, culminating in their consummate 2-0 semi-final triumph against hosts Slovakia. Curiously, the Azzurrini's main goal threat has come from defensive-minded players, centre-back Elio Capradossi and Mario Pugliese, but Zoratto insisted he is attempting to deconstruct the cliches about his country's playing style.
"Historically, it has been our strength, Italians know how to defend without training too much. We're looking to develop other concepts which are more attacking. We're trying our best and the results are coming," said the former Italian international, who has his full squad available. "We're always studying different ways to counteract opponents. At the moment, we're working on both defence and attack. Defence comes more naturally to us, attack is more complicated to teach."
His Russian counterpart Dmitri Khomukha told UEFA.com he is looking to Italy to "improve our defensive skills", though after two successive draws, including a 1-1 against Zoratto's team in their final Group B encounter in Nitra, his immediate concern may be at the opposite end of the pitch.
Though his group-winning charges were unable to take their opportunities against ten-man Sweden in the semi-final, they did show both character and formidable finishing skills from the spot in the shoot-out, shrugging off Egor Rudkovski's miss from their initial penalty to force sudden death before eventually coming through 10-9.
"The match against Sweden gave me a few grey hairs. We'll try to avoid penalties in the final," a grinning Khomukha said. "Whatever the outcome, it has already been a very successful tournament for us, as Russia have qualified for the final stage for the first time in seven years. But of course, we want to win the final now."
After returning from a three-match ban and having been called up as emergency cover, FC Zenit St Petersburg striker Ramil Sheydaev scored the decisive spot kick to send Russia into only their second U17 final having won the tournament in 2006.
"He was a leading striker during qualifying and his arrival boosted the confidence of the whole squad," explained Khomukha. "The key to victory will not change for the final: only good team play and full commitment will give us the result we want."