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Spain begin Under-21 defence in cautious mood

UEFA European U21 Championship winners in Denmark in June, Spain begin qualifying for the 2013 edition in Israel with coach Luis Milla wary "the whole world wants to beat them".

Luis Milla celebrates Spain's success at this summer's tournament in Denmark
Luis Milla celebrates Spain's success at this summer's tournament in Denmark ©Getty Images

Following their success at this summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark, Spain are set for a fresh challenge when they begin qualifying for the 2013 edition on Thursday.

With some of Luis Milla's victorious squad now knocking on the door of Vicente del Bosque's senior set-up, two opening fixtures against Georgia – the second of which takes place on Monday – represent the first chance for a new generation to make their mark.

Milla has decided to turn in part to members of the team which stood out at this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup, where they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage on penalties by eventual winners Brazil but for many observers were the most talented squad in the tournament. For some of Julen Lopetegui's charges who made the last eight in Colombia, there is now the start of a new campaign under Milla.

"I know from experience this is a very difficult tournament to win," said Milla, who did coach much of that World Cup squad to the 2010 UEFA European U19 Championship final before stepping up to the U21s. "For all of our rivals this time around, beating Spain will offer an extra incentive. Making a good start is of course very important and I am confident this group of players can do that."

The rise of players such as Thiago Alcántara, Alberto Botía, Álvaro Domínguez, and Martín Montoya to Del Bosque's senior selection, where they will join the likes of Juan Mata and Javi Martínez, further demonstrates the efforts made by Milla and his assistants. A rejuvenated batch of talent including Oriol Romeu and Sergio Canales, allied with U21 'veterans' including David de Gea and Iker Muniain, ensure they remain the team marked out as the ones to beat.

"When one particular side represents the reference point for the rest, the whole world wants to beat them," Milla said. "Having said that, we are ambitious and our goal is to defend our title as champions. We have a team that will compete well, a team that contains guys we have come to trust in for some time now. The door will also remain open for new players who might have something to bring us."

Indeed, after a memorable summer for the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) including their U19 going went one better than last year by taking the title in Romania, the road to the 2013 finals in Israel can be viewed as a new beginning. In a group containing Switzerland – runners-up to Spain in Denmark – Estonia and Croatia, though, there can be no guarantees of a repeat success.

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