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Netherlands aim to regain Under-17s title

Having lost their title last season in the elite round, the Netherlands welcome France, Austria and 2013 surprise package Sweden for Group 3, starting on Thursday.

Sweden will be looking to match last season's heroics
Sweden will be looking to match last season's heroics ©Valdas Knyzelis

The Netherlands fell at this stage last season in their bid for a third straight title and then lost long-serving coach Albert Stuivenberg to the Under-21s. Under Maarten Stekelenburg (not the Fulham FC goalkeeper), they sailed through the qualifying round with 17 unanswered goals, including a competition record-equalling 12-0 defeat of San Marino with five strikes from Ezra Walian. Last month they travelled to the Algarve and lost 2-0 to England and 4-1 to Germany before drawing 2-2 with  hosts Portugal.

Stekelenburg said: "The lads are looking forward to the tournament and would love to quality for the finals. This also brings pressure. It does not matter how we do it, but we have to finish top. It's too easy to say it will be between France and ourselves. It will turn into a nice battle between four good teams. To qualify we have to be in top form."

Qualifying round: Faroe Islands 4-0, San Marino 12-0, Georgia 1-0 (Group 11 winners)

Key players: Keziah Veendorp (defender, FC Groningen), Marlon Slabbekoorn (midfielder, Feyenoord), Dani van der Moot (forward, PSV Eindhoven)

France, champions in 2004, showed their character in the only qualifying round game they did not win, coming from two behind despite missing a penalty to hold hosts Israel 2-2. "It's crucial for the players to have a good European Championship so they can gain experience on the international stage," said coach Laurent Guyot. "It's good for us coaches as well. It allows us to observe them in competition and to know what they can do under pressure."

Qualifying round: Liechtenstein 2-0, Israel 2-2, Czech Republic 3-0 (Group 3 winners)

Key players: Issa Diop (defender, Toulouse FC), Allan Saint-Maximin (forward, AS Saint-Etienne)

Last season, Austria qualified for the first time in nine years, only to fall in the group stage in Slovakia and at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. However, Rupert Marko's side did not perform to their peak earlier this month in two friendlies with the Republic of Ireland, drawing 1-1 and losing 2-1. However, Marko said: "My players were not that easily overwhelmed by the Irish and showed that by creating a lot of chances. Both games were important tests, as they have not only shown many options, but also who is ready for the elite round and who is not."

Qualifying round: Switzerland 0-4, Denmark 2-0, Kazakhstan 2-0 (Group 12 runners-up)

Key players: Patrick Hasenhüttl (forward, VfB Stuttgart), Fabian Gmeiner (forward, VfB Stuttgart), Christopher Cvetko (midfielder, Bolton Wanderers FC)

Sweden have something to live up to this season, having last year qualified for their first U17 final tournament, reaching the semis then winning bronze at the World Cup. This year's crop, led by coach Magnus Wikman, warmed up with three February matches at La Manga. Sweden drew 1-1 with Turkey and Slovakia before falling 2-1 to Norway. "We've been drawn in a difficult group with three teams at a high European level," Wikman said. "It's a challenge but we regard ourselves as equal contenders with the others for the EURO finals spot."

Qualifying round: Lithuania 3-0, Ukraine 0-0, Italy 0-3 (Group 2 runners-up)

Key players: Ali Suljic (defender, Motala AIF), Erik Andersson (midfielder, Landskrona BoIS), Filip Sachpekidis (midfielder, Kalmar FF)