A Dimitri Foulquier goal ensured France became the first side through to the last four of the UEFA European Under 19 Championships while Portugal and Spain played out a six goal thriller in Lillekula.
Following the opening round of matches in Estonia on Tuesday, Group B side Croatia and Portugal sat atop of the eight strong competing team form table, seven games unbeaten stretching back to the beginning of the initial qualifying stage last Autumn. Friday saw both sides face undoubtedly their toughest tasks yet and in the case of Dinko Jelicic’s Croats, following their opening day draw with England, the threat of elimination from the tournament loomed large. Portugal took on Spain in the game’s late fixture while Croatia faced a France side that had raced out of the traps in this tournament with ominous intent against Serbia on Tuesday.
Pierre Mankowski made no changes to the side that swept aside the Serbs on Matchday One, so imminent Juventus signing Paul Pogba captained the French by the seaside in Haapsalu. Returning captain Filip Mrzljak replaced FC Nuremberg forward Antonio Mirko Colak in Croatia’s only change.
France dominated possession and play early on but found Croatia offering a resistance that was uncharacteristically missing against their opening day opponents Serbia. Opportunities were carved out at will but Thiabaut Vion and PSG forward Jean-Christophe Baheback were found wanting when the aforementioned efforts presented themselves, dragging shots wide of Simon Sluga’s goal. Plea did manage to get one strike on target in the first period which Sluga was equal to. France were dealt a blow eight minutes before half time when Alassane Plea withdraw through injury. His replacement Axel Ngando-Elessa, who celebrates his 19th birthday in seven days time, doubled the Stade Rennais contingent on the field with his entrance.
Croatia did not muster a shot on goal in the first half, but started the second better, Marko Dugandzic, of whom Croatia rely on goals in the absence of stars Marko Livaja and Ante Rebic, seeing his shot saved by French stopper Areola. Despite Croatia offering more contributing more after the break, France remained in control for the most part and sensing a victory that would confirm their place in the semi-finals and a place at the Under 20 World Cup, Mankowski withdrew FC Porto striker Vion in place of Alexy Bosetti, a three time scorer in qualifying. In the other dugout, plans were afoot for a Croatian change too, Mirko Colak replacing Dugandzic. Their need for a goal was decidedly more pressing.
In winning a competition, luck is as vital a component as any.
Any tangible pressing came from the French and the Croatia’s own resistance was broken ten minutes from the end, full back Dimitri Foulquier’s cross fooling Simon Slupa and crept inside the post and crossbar. Chances to double their lead were in plentiful supply and France played out the match in Croatia’s half. After such an impressive opener, France rode their luck in this one. Undisputed quality is on his side, Pierre Mankowski will delight in France getting the rub of the green. In winning a competition, it is as vital a component as any.
Elsewhere in Group B, England earned their first win of the tournament with a 2-1 win over Serbia. An early goal from Arsenal’s Benik Afobe set Noel Blake’s team on their way. Conor Coady’s cross was fumbled by Filip Pajovic, leaving the Arsenal forward with a relatively simple turn and tap in. Serbia, despite going behind early in the second consecutive match, fought back impressively with the English rearguard made to work for the remainder of the half.
Sam Johnstone remained the busier goalkeeper into the second half, but it was England who doubled their lead just after the hour. A quick breakaway from a blocked Nikola Ninkovic shot lead to Afobe finding Harry Kane. He feed Nathan Redmond and the Birmingham star smashed a shot into the top corner. Seven minutes later Ninkovic scored his third goal in five European Championship games to half the deficit but Blake’s team held out.
A draw in their final match against already qualified France would see England through. A defeat and a win for Croatia could see England eliminated at the group stage for the first time since 2008.
Estonia’s interest in progression is now over and Arno Pijpers team will now look to restore a semblance of pride against Spain on Monday. Easier dreamt then done.
Group A produced eleven goals on Matchday Two, taking its total to seventeen strikes in just four matches. Estonia got their name on the scoresheet on home soil finally, but captain Karl-Erik Luigend’s injury time strike was a mere consolation in a 4-1 defeat to Greece.
Goals from skipper Giorgos Katidis and Spyros Fourlanos either side of half time put the Greeks in control before a quickfire brace from Dimitris Diamantakos made it four to Greece. A four goal haul from Kostas Tsanas team is more in keeping with Greece’s exploits in qualifying, their twenty one goals second only to Portugal. They have now scored in all eight of their matches in this campaign. Estonia’s interest in progression is now over and Arno Pijpers team will now look to restore a semblance of pride against Spain on Monday. Easier dreamt then done.
In undoubtedly the game of the day, a Jese Rodriguez hat-trick looked to have confirmed Spain’s route to the last four before a last gasp penalty from Portugal captain Joao Mario secured a point and a chance of finishing atop of the Group A alive. On three occasions in the match, the Real Madrid striker scored to put La Roja in the lead but all three times they were pegged back. Sporting Lisbon winger Bruma, one of seven Sporting players in Edgar Borges panel, and impressive midfielder Andre Gomes got Portugal’s first and second.
While Spain remain in a good position to finish as group winners, with Estonia to come as Group A comes to a conclusion, the concession of four goals in two matches will be a cause for concern for Julen Loptegui. Spain have yet to keep a clean sheet in five games in this year’s competition. Still by hook or by crook, scoring more goals than the opposition en route to a potential record equalling ninth title at this level, means the neutral will not be found wanting for excitement.
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