TOURNAMENT OF TRANSITIONS AND CHANGES
"We are very excited and – when kick-off arrives – tension will no longer be an issue," stated Slovakia coach Branislav Petrovič prior to his side's debut – making them together with Austria the 27th and 28th nations to participate in the UEFA Women's Under-19 Championship. It took just 23 minutes for that tension to seep through a hitherto consummate nerve-suppressing recital, however, with a penalty setting the Netherlands on their way to what proved to be a comfortable victory, and a rude awakening for the hosts.
Qualifying top-scorer Sippie Folkertsma was unsurprisingly the supplier of the Netherlands' opening strike, from the penalty spot, adding that to the nine chalked up on the road to Slovakia. Jill Roord added a hat-trick and the hosts' false start was complete. "It will be a steep learning curve for our girls," Petrovič had said on the eve of the tournament, and his side's second group game would reveal exactly how steep it would be.
For the Dutch, meanwhile, it was an ideal start to their bid to wrestle back the 2014 title they did not have the opportunity to defend in Iceland in 2015. They may not have looked it, but even they were "nervous at first", according to Roord. "We just wanted to score quickly, but we didn't have the tempo. After the first goal, we took control." Michelle Hendriks ensured that with her intelligent midfield play, influencing the transitions which would become a key feature of the Dutch team's game, as well as the tournament on the whole.
The Netherlands' one and only Women's European Under-19 Championship triumph came in Norway, whose own opening fixture confirmed how keen they are on taking the final step after falling agonisingly short in 2003, 2008 and 2011. A red card for France defender Hawa Cissoko midway through the first half in Zlaté Moravce played into Norway's hands, with the extra space and superior movement of Nils Lexerød's team helping them seize and never look like relinquishing the initiative. It was a set-piece which earned them a 1-0 victory, however, with Katrine Jørgensen heading in Nora Lie's innovative corner which outwitted Les Bleuettes. That turned out to be Norway's only goal of the finals.
In many respects, the Group B opener between Spain and Germany was already something of a decider. Four-time winners Germany, whose only other final appearance in 2004 resulted in defeat to Spain – correspondingly the Iberians' last triumph at this level – were up against the runners-up of three of the past four editions, including the last two. With 11 and 13 tournament final appearances respectively, it was congruently a meeting of two of the most experienced campaigners present in Slovakia, and an immediate gauge of who could do justice to their pre-tournament billing of favourites.
Spain were forced to play a patient game in the opening 45 minutes with Germany's game plan and tactical preparation nullifying their threat and ensuring they did not seek out any potentially risky passes, but that they rather opted to play over the compact German block. Only when Germany tired did Spain turn the screw with a much-improved passing game, around the pivotal Patricia Guijarro.
"Spain were staying patient and knew they would get the breakthrough," commented UEFA technical observer Jarmo Matikainen. "
Everybody wants to defend well against Spain, but the Spaniards' perseverance paid dividends."
Twenty-six goal attempts were quite evenly distributed, but with Spain finding the target more frequently, a winner was always more likely to be fished out of Lena Pauels' net, and so it proved when tournament old head Nahikari García – one of three Spanish players participating in no less than a fifth final tournament spanning under-17 and under-19 levels together with Nuria Garrote and Andrea Sánchez Falcón – supplied Spain's winner. Pauels' quick reactions denied Sandra Hernández a late second, but the heat was already on Germany with Switzerland next up.
The Swiss celebrated 39 goals on their way to Slovakia, and four more were to come on their 100th fixture at Under-19 level, against final tournament debutants Austria. Cinzia Zehnder opened and closed the scoring, with Naomi Mégroz and Lara Jenzer – a graduate of Switzerland's 2015 UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship finalists – chipping in. Austria's bow had not quite followed the desired script, but there was time to remedy this, even if their subsequent fixture against Spain was enough to stir up some stage fright.
In those second round of matches, Spain would build on the solid foundations laid in their Germany win with a 4-0 triumph over a disciplined, diligent yet ultimately unavailing Austria, laying another marker and ensuring they punched their ticket to the last four with a game to spare.
Andrea Sánchez Falcón was again the architect with a sublime direct free-kick, which she would again show belonged to her armoury in the semi-finals, and then supplying the finish to one of Spain's typically patient and finally incisive moves with 16 passes preceding a perfectly-timed diagonal ball which bisected the Austria defence – an invitation for the number ten's headed finish.
That was a cardinal feature of Spain's varied attempts to build from the back, as UEFA technical observer Patricia González explained: "It is a typical pattern to beat compact and deep defences which you cannot break through." On this occasion, like also against Switzerland in the final group game, it worked to a tee and Spain were able to plot their path to the final.
"We have only two girls who have not played in this tournament yet and they may very likely get a chance to play in the last group stage game," said head coach Pedro López, hinting at the rotation which was to follow against the Swiss, even if the Spain coach stressed "it will also be important because we want to win the group." He was true to his words on both accounts.
The Spanish conceded only two opportunities to their opponents, whose adventure in Slovakia was consequently over. "I have mixed feelings," surmised Irene Fuhrmann. "We made a step further and we have shown a better performance and dedication than in the first game, but the result is disappointing and we are out of the tournament."
That was the fate also facing Germany ahead of their meeting with Switzerland, and it befell them. In spite of rich phases of possession, it proved difficult for Maren Meinert's team to transform that supremacy into clear goalscoring opportunities with Switzerland all too willing to break rapidly, reading and anticipating the game well and consistently looking a menace on the attack.
The outstanding Géraldine Reuteler – Switzerland's youngest player at the tournament, aged just 17 and three months, and the third youngest at the finals behind Slovakia's Mária Mikolajová and the Netherlands' Ashleigh Weerden – was inspirational after moving wide left at the start of the second half, setting up two goals for substitute Camille Surdez, who made her own impact on the game and the tournament.
A 4-2 win had the cowbells clanging in the Senica air, as the bells tolled for Germany. "The level of all other countries is on the rise," acknowledged Meinert. "You need to have a really good day to win a game nowadays. Spain and Switzerland deserved to win against us – they were not lucky wins. But we are not sleeping in Germany, we are trying to be ahead, it's just that's not always possible."
France had no other choice but to be ahead of Slovakia in their second fixture, but that did not prove such an easy undertaking against very compact hosts who had a point of their own to prove after a humbling opener.
Gilles Eyquem again opted for the 1-4-3-3 formation which had lacked zest against Norway and this proved equally inert in Senec, despite the individual strength down both wings which contributed to France winning eight corners in the opening 45 minutes. A tactical revolution at the start of the second half was tantamount to a transformation which – for the first but certainly not the last time in Slovakia – was the key to unlocking a game.
Marie-Antoinette Katoto entered the fray to join Clara Mateo and the system changed to 1-4-4-2 – a style Eyquem admitted had always been in the back of his mind, but one which had not necessarily given him the assurances he had been looking for prior to the tournament. "With one player behind the forward, we were struggling to get to the goal so it seemed that with Marie-Antoinette and playing with two forwards, it would give us an advantage and let my players push forward more down the wings," he said.
It proved an inspired choice with three goals scored in less than ten minutes, created by France's now unshackled wingers. Thanks to the creativity of the livewire Perle Morroni, supported astutely by substitute Héloïse Mansuy, and combined with Katoto's ruthless finishing, France found that gear which, for 135 minutes, had eluded them. It was the catalyst for their campaign. "I'm satisfied by that," added Eyquem. "I thought Marie-Antoinette Katoto was an influential presence on the pitch and brought a lot to the attack."
Although not put to the test in the opening game, Netherlands goalkeeper Paulina Quaye stepped up to the plate when needed in their second fixture in Zlaté Moravce. "She was excellent with the ball at her feet and contributed to the build-up play," noted UEFA's technical observer Jarmo Matikainen, who saw the quick transitions from the back as a key to the Dutch defeating a diligent Norway 1-0. Folkertsma supplied the all-important goal, and Netherlands were on the verge of qualification.
Spain concluded the group stage with Lucía García and Nahikari García on three goals – the latter adding to the two she scored in the 2014 finals and the brace she bagged in the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, which sufficed to make her that tournament's outright top-scorer.
Both led the line in a game which may have seen personnel changes for López's team, although it was business as usual in every other sense. The Garcías shared five goals as Spain put Switzerland to the sword in Myjava, completing the group stage with a perfect nine points, ten goals scored and none conceded. The Swiss already knew they were joining Spain in the last four, so the pain of defeat was tempered.
Meanwhile, the weather Gods displayed a wild temper in Zlaté Moravce, breaking temporarily but ferociously with the trend of bright, sunny weather which otherwise characterised the tournament in Slovakia, with Norway and Slovakia feeling the wrath.
The hosts had withstood Norway's assaults well, making it to the interval without conceding for the second successive game thanks to some very disciplined and committed defending, exalted by physically strong players who won plenty of one on ones. Width was again the key element of Norway's build-up play, but both teams had to give a wide berth to the weather as the rain gushed down during the interval and forced a delay to the start of the second half.
The action did restart, but the merciless conditions deteriorated and forced referee Linn Andersson to send the teams back to the sanctity of the dressing rooms once again. With no let-up in sight, and with the result of the other group fixture filtering through, there was only one decision to be taken.
France needed to beat the Netherlands to have any chance of progressing, and even then their destiny was not entirely in their own hands. Eyquem plumped for a 1-4-2-3-1, although the main difference to his side could be seen in their mentality as they showed great intent and motivation from the first to the final minute.
Katoto was imperious as ever, putting Les Bleuettes in front before Grace Geyoro supplied the second, and out came the calculators to fathom the qualification permutations. Roord scored another from her deep 'shadow striker' position, and the 2-1 result meant that both France and the Netherlands were through. Back in Zlaté Moravce, the floodlights were turned off, and the lights officially went out for Norway and Slovakia. The two nations agreed not to conclude their abandoned fixture, which was thus registered as a goalless draw.
Joining them on an early flight home were Germany and Austria, who already knew their final fixture was only about pride. Germany picked up just that little bit more with a 3-1 win, Stefanie Sanders scoring her third of the tournament and Ivana Feric getting Austria's first, just six minutes from the end of a pathfinding mission in Slovakia. "I'm proud of how my team played today," Austria coach Irene Fuhrmann acknowledged.
With an average of 3.42 goals per game in the group stage, one trend was already becoming evident, and it was to continue. With 11 goals in total, the semi-finals became the highest-scoring in the tournament's history, with unimaginable twists and turns completing the entertainment.
France and Switzerland were first onto the stage in Senec with Eyquem somewhat surprisingly returning to a 1-4-3-3 formation while Switzerland coach Nora Häuptle stuck with the tried and trusted 1-4-1-4-1, with the effervescent Reuteler alone but certainly not abandoned up front. Their youngest player was given plenty of support from midfield as the Swiss did well in neutralising France's forays, with Lesley Ramseier controlling the balance and direction of their build-up.
A mistake from France defender Cissoko was punished ruthlessly by the Swiss, Marilena Widmer spotting Reuteler's run across France's only remaining central defender in position, Estelle Cascarino, and delivering a pass which was taken with one touch and perfectly dispatched past Mylène Chavas with the next.
At 1-0 down going into the interval, it may have been hard to imagine a recovery for the French, but once again Eyquem delved into his tactical box of tricks and, not for the first time, transformed his team's approach. Only 29 seconds after Clara Mateo and Perle Morroni had entered the fray and France resumed with a 1-4-4-2 style, they were on level terms with the two substitutes combining clinically.
Eight minutes and 18 seconds into the second half, they had turned the game on its head with Katoto assisted by Mateo for the second, before the latter added the third. "The two substitutions improved the team and the attacking side of the game," said Eyquem. "I had rested some players in the first half and it proved a good choice as they made a big impact in the second."
For the third time in as many attempts, Switzerland fell at the semi-finals' stage, although Häuptle can take heart from having seven members of her squad eligible to return in Northern Ireland in 2017, richer from their experience in Slovakia.
Joining them in the final were Spain, who were given their toughest challenge yet of a campaign which had seen them score 23 and concede just two. For Nuria Garrote, Nahikari García and Andrea Sánchez Falcón, it was another meeting with the Netherlands' Jill Roord after the 2014 final in Oslo, and an opportunity to exact revenge for that defeat.
The Dutch caught the better start with Suzanne Admiraal sending a sweet volley past Amaia Peña from almost 25 metres. Spain captain Sandra Hernández bettered that from even further out before nemesis Roord restored the Netherlands' advantage just shy of the hour mark.
Two goals in five minutes from Marta Cazalla and Hernández again put Spain in the driving seat, and the captain completed her hat-trick with a deflected shot which put the game beyond the Dutch, or so it might have seemed. Jessica Torny's team had not made it this far by chance and Michelle Hendricks set up a grandstand final five minutes, finishing a fast combination with Soraya Verhoeve after the Dutch's high pressing allowed them to pick up possession in a punishing position.
Spain held on, however, to book a third consecutive final appearance.
"The Netherlands played at a high pace but in the end we were able to impose our game," said Spain coach Pedro López. "Sandra came to the tournament hungry to win it, it will be her second final, and she's always ready to give her all for the team."
While it would be her second final, it would be a record-breaking fifth for Garrote and Nahikari, who previously appeared in the 2012/13 and 2013/14 WU17 and 2013/14 and 2014/15 WU19 EURO showpieces. Furthermore, Nahikari would become the player to have appeared in the most UEFA youth final games, male or female, at 22, and Falcón the top appearance maker in all UEFA men's or women's youth competition with 40.