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Belgium win Group 1 early to claim finals return

Belgium 3-2 Croatia
Marc Van Geersom's side secured first place in Group 1 with a match to spare thanks to Thorgan Hazard's dramatic late winner against the hosts.

Croatia's Antonio Jakoliš (left) battles with Belgium captain Florent Cuvelier
Croatia's Antonio Jakoliš (left) battles with Belgium captain Florent Cuvelier ©Delmas

Belgium have reached the UEFA European Under-19 Championship for the first time since 2006, a dramatic win against Croatia securing first place in elite round Group 1 with a match to spare.

Marc Van Geersom's side had opened the section with a 1-0 win against Portugal on Tuesday, and a second successive victory proved enough to ensure their place in July's finals in Romania ahead of Sunday's concluding game against Estonia.

Maxime Lestiene opened the scoring in the 23rd minute, beating goalkeeper Matej Delač from ten metres. The lead proved short lived, though, Ivan Blažević equalising for the mini-tournament hosts with a spectacular effort from the edge of the area.

Belgium regained the advantage three minutes before the hour thanks to Jelle Rykx, who found the net with a fine free-kick from 25 metres out. It looked as if that would only be enough for a point, however, when Marin Mić's smart header levelled matters again three minutes from time.

With Croatia still on a high, Belgium promptly – and decisively – pulled in front for a third time, Thorgan Hazard scoring the winner. Belgium therefore have six points, three more than Croatia and Portugal, who meet on Sunday, and ahead of both on head-to-head record.

"We are very happy to qualify early," said Van Geersom. "It wasn't easy for us to play in the 30C heat, but our tactics were good again and my players are going to jump into the sea to celebrate! We still want to win the final game, though." Croatian counterpart Ivan Grnja added: "We are very unhappy, but Belgium deserved victory. At 1-1 we had a great opportunity to take a lead, but we couldn't convert it – we offer Belgium full congratulations on their qualification."