France cram for Croatia test

France coach Francis Smerecki has had to learn fast as he looks to plot a way past surprise package Croatia in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship semi-finals on Tuesday.

France coach Francis Smerecki has been studying Croatia
France coach Francis Smerecki has been studying Croatia ©Sportsfile

France coach Francis Smerecki has been putting in the hours as the UEFA European Under-19 Championship hosts prepare to face Croatia in the semi-finals.

Smerecki's side secured first place in Group A with a 1-1 draw against England on Saturday and now return to Caen – where they kicked off the finals with a 4-1 defeat of the Netherlands in front of more than 11,000 spectators – to take on opponents who will represent something of an unknown quantity. "Two days ago I didn't know much about Croatia but I've focused on them and therefore today I know a bit more," Smerecki told UEFA.com. "They're a good, even a very good team, very well-organised and solid; a united group with a number of great talents. It's going to be a tricky match with very few goalscoring opportunities."

France are in the last four for the fourth time in six seasons although they won only the first of those ties – the 2005 meeting with Germany – losing in both 2007 and 2009. Of more relevance to Smerecki is the fact his squad includes ten members of the team who beat Turkey at this stage of the U17 event two years ago. "It'll be a tough game but we want to repeat the experience of playing in a final," the coach added. "I'm positive we won't put the cart before the horse. This squad is united and focused on the next match, not the following one. I am confident, at least that we will take this game seriously."

Croatia coach Ivica Grnja has a selection dilemma as captain Renato Kelić was sent off in the 5-0 defeat of Portugal that secured second place in Group B, while Roberto Punčec and Anton Maglica are both out with ankle injuries and Ante Vukušić's calf problem will restrict him to a place on the bench. "It's not important how Renato plays, it's important for him just to be on the field as he leads the team and that's what the boys will miss the most – his guidance," Grnja told UEFA.com. "It's very difficult to predict how we're going to perform but we believe in this team and what will be will be."

Croatia are in only their third semi-final at any UEFA youth level, both the previous matches – the 2001 U16s and the U17s four years later – ending in defeat yet Grnja is optimistic his team can upset the hosts. "Being in the semi-finals with great teams such as England, France and Spain is overwhelming – amazing for myself and the boys," he added. "As hosts, and with a big crowd behind them, France will want to give the best possible account of themselves so we must cut off the supply to their strikers and mark closely. They're excellent players who only need a half-chance to score. We must stay organised in defence and wait for our chances; when they come, we have to take them."

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