The eight sides competing at next summer's 2013 UEFA European Under-21 Championship will gain a better idea of the challenges in store when the draw for the finals takes place in Tel Aviv on Wednesday 28 November.
Defending champions Spain may be the team to beat but the lineup of contenders suggests they will face strong competition. Hosts Israel share top-seed status along with Spain – meaning the pair will avoid each other – while past winners England and the Netherlands will be second seeds in the draw at the Hilton Hotel in Israel's commercial capital.
The four unseeded sides include Italy and Germany – both also victorious in the past – together with Russia and Norway. Two groups of four will be drawn with matches taking place from 5–18 June at four venues: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya and Petach Tikva.
The qualifying efforts of several teams stand out. Triumphant in Denmark in 2011, a Spain side now coached by Julen Lopetegui came through the group phase with the fewest goals conceded – just two in eight fixtures – and boasted the leading scorer in Rodrigo. He hit four of his 11 goals in a single match, the 5-0 first-leg rout of Denmark that set up an 8-1 aggregate success in the play-offs.
Germany, winners in 2009 in Sweden, were the only other unbeaten team in qualifying and finished as the overall highest scorers with 39 goals from ten group fixtures, as they booked their return to the finals after missing out last time.
The Netherlands, similarly, are back for the first time since posting back-to-back tournament triumphs in 2006 and 2007, while their fellow second seeds England were champions in 1982 and 1984 and have a wealth of recent experience as the only team to have participated in the last four final rounds.
Italy were absent in Denmark in 2011 but have the most impressive pedigree of all the contenders, with five U21 finals victories, the most recent in 2004. By contrast, Norway and Russia each have limited tournament experience, though both provided reason to believe in qualifying.
Norway have only competed once before at this level – in 1998 when they ranked third – and are the only second-placed team from the group stage to make it through. Yet the way in which they overcame France in the play-offs, winning 5-3 at home to overturn a 1-0 first-leg loss, should give them hope.
As for Russia, they too were last involved in the latter stages in 1998, when reaching the quarter-finals, but won their group ahead of Portugal and then ousted the Czech Republic in the play-offs.
Israel complete the lineup. Their only previous appearance in the finals was in the Netherlands in 2007, where they finished without a point or a goal, but Guy Luzon's hosts will hope to make the most of home advantage and leave a positive impression.
This, after all, is a tournament precisely for that and the list of past UEFA.com Golden Players underlines its status as a showcase for the European game's bright young things: Davor Šuker, Luís Figo and Andrea Pirlo are among the players to have left their mark, with Spain's Juan Mata following in those illustrious footsteps last time.
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