Thursday, 11 September 2008

[U21] Azzurrini await their play-off fate

For the first time in four years a new European Under-21 champion will be crowned next summer, but there the certainties end as an enthralling qualifying campaign reaches its climax.

2009 UEFA European U21 ChampionshipItaly, along with thirteen other teams, have qualified for the play-offs for the chance to join hosts Sweden at the 2009 UEFA European U21 Championship, and judging by events so far, more surprises should be in store as the remaining contenders prepare for Friday's play-off draw in Malmo.

The group stage of the qualifying campaign concluded this week, with champions the Netherlands, who successive titles in 2006 and 2007, being eliminated by Switzerland.

Not that the play-offs will be short of powerhouses. Five-time champions Italy advanced unbeaten through Group 1 but Pierluigi Casiraghi's side had to sweat until the last minute of the last game of the group stage. The Azzurrini picked up the point they needed in Croatia, drawing 1-1.

Elsewhere Spain, twice winners, did not drop a point in Group 4; England, back-to-back victors in 1982 and 1984, conceded just one goal – a penalty – en route to topping Group 3 undefeated; Serbia, finalists in 2007, dominated Group 8; while France, champions in 1988, were one of the four best runners-up.

Les Bleuets were kept off pole position in Group 10 by Wales, who stunned Romania 3-0 in their final game to seal a surprise play-off berth. Austria (Group 7 winners) and Finland (Group 6) also aim to qualify for the first time, while Turkey (Group 2) last participated in the tournament proper in 2000.

There was also joy for Belarus, who last qualified in 2004, as they were pipped on head-to-head record by Serbia in Group 8 but among the best runners-up. Israel competed in their first U21 finals in the Netherlands last year and have attained the play-offs as runners-up behind Germany in Group 9; Denmark squeezed through ahead of Croatia and the Netherlands on goal difference as the fourth best second-placed team.

The play-off draw will be made at the HSB Turning Torso Meetings skyscraper in Malmo, Sweden, from 1100 UK time (+1hr for Italy/CET) on Friday.

The seven two-legged ties will be played on a home-and-away basis on 11/12 and 14/15 October.

The victors will join hosts Sweden in the eight-nation finals from 15 to 29 June 2009.

Source: UEFA

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