Paul Doolin and his squad arrived in Bucharest this week. INPHO/Donall Farmer

A Bluffer's Guide to... the UEFA U19 Championship

Ireland are set for their UEFA U19 Championship bid in Romania. Here’s the low-down.

What’s this all about, then?

The UEFA U19 Championship takes place every year and bears all the hallmarks of a UEFA competition.

Big and unwieldy, it sprawls over three stages and whittles a starting group of 52 teams down to a final seven, who then join the hosts in the Final Tournament stage.

This year’s hosts, Romania, are joined by teams from Ireland, Czech Republic, Greece, Serbia, Turkey, Belgium and Spain, all of whom booked their places on the plane to Bucharest by virtue of their performance during a highly competitive Elite Round.  Placed into two seeded groups of four, the top two teams from each group will progress directly to the semi-finals.

Who are the favourites?

Surprise, surprise: it’s the Spanish! Having won the tournament four times in the last decade and narrowly lost to France in last year’s final, Spain more than a touch of pedigree when it comes to dominating at this level. Their coach Gines Melendez may have taken the reins only recently, but as a former coach of the U17 team, he’s more than familiar with the array of talent under his command.

Greece, who managed to oust the defending champions en route to taking maximum points during their Elite Round campaign look the most likely to threaten the Iberian hegemony, but the bookies would have you believe the Czech Republic are worthy second favourites. Turkey, not to be underestimated, managed to put together a run of five straight victories in qualifying.

I notice you didn’t mention Ireland there.

Well spotted. Ireland enter the competition as something of an unknown quantity. It’s generally accepted that football at this level has a high turnover of players (you know, what with their ageing and all), but coach Paul Doolin, of Drogheda United fame, has elaborated on that theme and totally overhauled the squad that graduated from the first qualifying round:

“We won the first two games in Bulgaria but then lost to Serbia, who looked stronger technically and physically. I’d had no involvement in picking that squad so I wanted to see what was available to me. I had a look round the clubs in England, where most of our players are.

“We had two friendlies in Croatia, I took 17 new players and we got a win and a draw. Then we went to Cyprus with a blend of some players from the qualifying round and some I’d introduced and we did well again. Our elite round was good but this is another step up. We’re really looking forward to it.”

They’re unbeaten in seven matches and their progression from the Elite Round did include an improbable thrashing of Italy, but with Ireland likely needing to take full points from the hosts and the equivalent of at least one point from each of their other group opponents, a berth in the semi-finals looks anything but secure.

Skipper John Egan outside the team hotel in Bucharest (INPHO/Donall Farmer)

Speaking ahead of the team’s departure, captain John Egan, above, sounded cautious:

“Some of the pundits think that we may have been dealt with an easier group at these finals, missing out on the big teams such as Spain and Turkey, but I can guarantee that every player in this squad is mindful of the threat that teams such as Czech Republic, Greece and the hosts, Romania possess. With just eight teams at these finals, every team is here on merit [except Romania] and we will not be taking anybody for granted.”

Ireland’s first match, against Greece, kicks off on Wednesday evening at 7pm Irish time. Eurosport will show their second tie against the Czech Republic at 5pm.

I’m still not sold on this

The U19 Championship is the premier showcase for emerging European talent. If you take the time to watch this tournament unfold, it’s likely you’re going to come across at least a handful of future senior internationals and Champions League hopefuls. The French team that lifted the 2005 trophy included the likes of Hugo Lloris, Abou Diaby, Yohan Cabaye and the dashing Yohan Gourcuff.

When Spanish wunderkind Pablo Sarabia appears or Revista de la Liga at some point over the next couple of years, wouldn’t it be nice to say you’ve been following him since he was an underage player?

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