For the next two weeks, Hungary will be home for the brightest young talents in Europe. Seven teams that found their way to the annual final tournament through the qualifiers in order to join their hosts Hungary will play in UEFA's 2014 European Under-19 Championship. The tournament kicks off this Saturday, when reigning champions Serbia meet Ukraine in Gyor.
The demanding system of the qualifiers, where 53 nations are competing in two phases to determine only seven teams to play in the finals, guarantee that the teams that reached Hungary can provide us with quality football and the finest talents in Europe. What is more, some of the biggest powerhouses of European football suffered an early exit, with top-seeds Spain being among them, as well as England (nine titles), France (seven titles) and Italy (three).
The eight teams that fought their way to Hungary are split into two groups of four and the two top teams after three matches will advance to the semi-final. Even the battle for the third place in the group will not be meaningless, considering the fact that the top-three teams from both groups will automatically seal the place in next year's FIFA Under-20 World Cup that will take place in New Zealand.
Group A is comprised of the hosts Hungary, their neighbours Austria, Portugal and Israel, while Group B is packed with former champions. Serbia defends the title they won last year, while Germany won the tournament in 2008, Ukraine a year later, while the fourth team will be Bulgaria.
The hosts are probably the biggest enigma in this tournament, since they did not play competitive football for a year after being automatically awarded with the place in the finals. However, they had the time to prepare themselves and their coach Geza Meszoly is convinced this team can do much on home soil, as he told to UEFA.com.
His biggest star should be the captain and one of the biggest Hungarian prospects Zsolt Kalmar, who plays for Gyori, and AC Milan's left-back Krisztian Tamas.
Manchester City's prospect Sinan Bytyqi, who scored five goals in the qualifiers, should lead a very talented and well-organized Austrian side. The semi-finalists of the competition in 2003 and 2006 rely on their attacking side, which produced 17 goals in six matches in the qualification campaign.
The power in attack is what Portugal has on their mind as well, their 21 goals in six wins in the qualifiers making them the top scorers overall. Porto's prodigy Andre Silva scored six of those goals and Portugal are definitely going to be one of the biggest favorites of the competition.
On the other hand, many give Israel the least chance of faring well in the competition. This being their debut in the finals already makes their achievement huge, but they are hoping that their solid defending—they kept five clean sheets in six qualifiers—could bring them a success.
Still, the Israelis will have the role of the outsider in Group A, the same role Bulgaria will have in Group B. They are used to it; the Bulgarians were written off before their Elite round group even started, having Italy, Sweden and Czech Republic as the opponents, but they ended up winning it and reaching their second finals after 2008 debut.
Ukrainians won the tournament back in 2008, but have not featured in the finals since then. This year, they managed to eliminate big favourites England, after beating them 1-0 with a stoppage-time winner in the decisive match in their Elite round group. Oleksandr Petrakov's side bases their ambitions on well-organized defending—Ukraine conceded only twice in six matches.
Serbia is in a quest to repeat last year's success with a new coach. Veljko Paunovic replaced Ljubinko Drulovic, but inherited some of the most important players from the winning squad. Despite proving their defensive fortitude in the qualifiers (two goals conceded in six matches), the Serbs lay their hopes on the shoulders of players like Partizan's winger Andrija Zivkovic, who was already called for Serbia national team, or 6'3" tall but very gifted midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who has already swapped his mother club Vojvodina with Belgium side Genk.
However, the biggest favourite for the title should be Marcus Sorg's Germany. This generation has been together for a long time now, the core of the team playing in the EURO Under-17 final two years ago. Their performance in the last match of the qualifiers, when they defeated Spain away in Vigo, proved that this team has matured and is ready for the biggest things.
Max Meyer, who was included in the 30-man provisional squad for 2014 FIFA World Cup, was supposed to be their No. 1 star, but the old problem of these tournaments came to the surface when Schalke 04 wanted him to stay back home and prepare for the season that comes. However, having players with significant Bundesliga experience like Niklas Stark of Nurnberg or Julian Brandt from Bayer Leverkusen, guarantees that we'll witness another great generation from the German talent factory.
The tournament begins on Saturday, when Serbia plays Ukraine and Germany meets Bulgaria in Group B, while Portugal takes Israel and Hungary clashes with Austria. The final is scheduled for 31 July at Ferenc Szusua Stadium in Budapest.
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