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Spain all set for title defence

Neighbours Portugal are the first team to try to scupper Spain's hopes of a third successive title, with hosts Lithuania and the Netherlands also lying in wait in Group A.

Coaches of the Group A teams pose with the U19 trophy
Coaches of the Group A teams pose with the U19 trophy ©Sportsfile

Spain's status as the UEFA European Under-19 Championship's dominant force means they will be strongly tipped to progress to the semi-finals in the tournament's 12th edition, although Group A rivals Lithuania, Portugal and the Netherlands all share the same goal.

The holders and six-time winners open their campaign against Iberian neighbours Portugal in Marijampole this weekend, with La Rojita coach Luis de la Fuente explaining his side are focused on producing the style of play for which Spain have become famed.

"We have the utmost respect for all our rivals, especially Portugal," the 52-year-old former Athletic Club defender said. "Saturday will be a very difficult game and one in which we must be focused. We will try to give a good account of ourselves while sticking to our footballing philosophy, which is unalterable and which we look to maintain in every category of the Spanish international set-up."

Portugal earned a 3-3 draw with Spain in last season's finals group stage and their coach Emílio Peixe – a FIFA U-20 World Cup winner in 1991 – is looking forward to another encounter with the country he described as "brothers". "[The two nations] have a great relationship; we know what they're doing and we like what we see," he said.

Runners-up in 2003, Portugal qualified this year thanks to elite round victories against Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Denmark. Bruma, their seven-goal top scorer in qualifying, is absent having competed at the U20 World Cup earlier this month but Peixe is keen for the remaining players to showcase their skills.   

"This [tournament] is part of a process that's gone on for four years, with good and bad moments," the 40-year-old said. "We missed the European U17 Championship with this group but believe in our work and the talent at our disposal. Let's see how far we can go."

An appearance at the 1998 UEFA European U18 Championship aside, Lithuania have never before participated at this advanced level. Seeking to allay any fears his players may have as tournament hosts, coach Antanas Vingilys insisted his troops are "worthy of being here".

"Our goal is to play as well as we can in every game and to get to the next round," he said. "Hopefully [playing at home] will help us but it might be a danger if the players feel overburdened. We must make sure that doesn't happen."

Asked about the home team's strengths ahead of the sides' Group A opener in Kaunas on Saturday, Netherlands coach Wim van Zwam replied: "They defend very well and break to attack quickly. The first game is always hard and Lithuania have some very good players. We want to win but it's going to be tough."

Van Zwam guided his charges to only their second finals appearance courtesy of Thom Haye's last-gasp winner against Germany in their concluding elite round game. Now here, the former FC Wageningen midfielder is reluctant to make predictions, saying: "It's always hard to say what your expectations are. We face three tough matches and we're looking at those for the experience they will give to our young players."