The talent boasted by the next generation of elite women's football in Europe was evident even from the final tournament draw for the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship. Five of the eight countries to have lifted the trophy since the competition changed from a U18 event in 2001/02 were represented as the tournament path was mapped out in Haifa but there was no place for holders Netherlands, whose title defence had been ended in the elite round by Denmark.
Hosts Israel would be the 26th different national team to compete at the finals and their experience during the group stage would prove an important milestone in the advancement of Israeli women's football. Coach Guy Azouri had assembled the best 24 players at his disposal between 15 and 19 years of age at a special academy for the two years leading up to the finals and installed them into the national league championship in order to continually assess their development. Even so, their opening-night Group A fixture with Sweden remained a step into the unknown.
"We can make big improvements in every game because we've never even had the chance to play friendly matches against such strong opposition," said Azouri. "But our discipline and tactics were good against Sweden even though it was the first experience for my team at such a level."
Azouri would admit that many sides would be floored by the nature of Sweden's first goal in the televised match at Lod Municipal Stadium as captain Nathalie Björn floated an audacious long-distance effort over goalkeeper Fortuna Rubin midway through the first half. Forward Stina Blackstenius soon doubled the lead and, with her 16th goal of the campaign, wrapped up a 3-0 victory that reflected the wishes of long-serving Swedish coach Calle Barrling for his team to be "in the zone" during these finals.
Sweden's goalkeeper and captain Zecira Musovic was unavailable for the championship owing to club duties with Rosengård and her replacement Emma Holmgren had yet to face a shot on target by the full-time whistle against Denmark on matchday two, which confirmed their qualification not only for the semi-finals but also as one of four European representatives at the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
Sweden had to be tactically astute as well as physically strong to earn that 1-0 success, snuffing out the Danish menace from wide positions and forcing their opponents to aerially attack to a five-pronged front line late on as Barrling's side prevailed through a 35th-minute penalty earned by Blackstenius's trickery and thundered home by Filippa Angeldal.
Denmark were thus eliminated, having lost their opener to France by the same scoreline but in very different circumstances. With defence and midfield operating as two cooperating units in Netanya, Søren Randa-Boldt's charges nonetheless conceded chances but only one goal, scored in the 49th minute by Marie-Charlotte Léger, whose late penalty was foiled by Naja Bahrenscheer. As would be the case against Sweden, the Danes' own opportunities were limited but golden when they came, and a failure to grasp them cost them dear.
The margins in Group B were far tighter, with none of the four sides confirmed as semi-finalists until the final round of matches. Like France, Spain oozed confidence and technical prowess in a 4-0 triumph over Norway in Ramla with a performance bearing all the hallmarks of the national style echoed at all levels. Jorge Vilda's team were 3-0 up before the interval, and Alba Redondo's second of the game seven minutes from time sealed a comprehensive win that sent a real statement to their rivals at the finals.
After Jarl Torske's long reign with the Norwegian WU19s, Nils Lexerød might have been forgiven for wondering what he had signed up for given the margin of defeat, but reminding his charges of victory earlier in the year over Germany, they attacked their second assignment against the latter opposition with a positive spirit and winning mentality. Defending high up the pitch in a 1-4-4-2 formation, Norway focused on pressurising the ball and being hard to play through, in order to force the direct pass and allow their central defenders to use their aerial prowess to diffuse any problems. Vilde Fjelldal had registered the winner in the two countries' La Manga meeting and repeated the dose by finishing a counterattack in the fifth minute, added to by an own goal by Rebecca Knaak as Norway revived their campaign with a 2-0 success.
No team could eclipse Germany's record of finals appearances yet they were given a scare at the start of their 12th such campaign, needing an 87th-minute header from captain Knaak to edge out England 2-1. England ran tirelessly throughout and earned reward for the positive intent of their attacking full-backs when Gabrielle George restored parity just five minutes after falling behind to Nina Ehegötz's cute clipped finish in the first half. Maren Meinert's substitutions made the greater impact in a toe-to-toe encounter described by the Germany coach as "very intense". Where Germany found the winner from a corner, England struck the crossbar from a similar dead ball at the other end, proving the fine margins that would divide success and failure in Israel.
England's 1-4-3-3 would also prove difficult to overwhelm for Spain, who fell behind in Ramla to Natasha Flint's speculative effort from near the halfway line. Pilar Garrote equalised early in the second period for Spain but for all their technical artistry, it would be two set pieces that made the difference. First, Nuria Garrote's free-kick was nodded in by Redondo, then on 90 minutes a Leire Baños corner was converted by Rocío Gálvez.
The 3-1 loss left England requiring a win by two clear goals against Norway, plus a Spain victory over Germany, in order to progress but neither scenario played out on matchday three. England's passage to the finals had only been confirmed with a retaken penalty, ordered by a disciplinary decision, five days after their elite round match against the same Nordic opponents had initially concluded; it was converted by Leah Williamson for a 2-2 final score. In this latest instalment, both teams boasted chances but neither could take them, and the ensuing 0-0 draw allowed Germany and Spain to advance.
Germany would do so as group winners after a frenetic display sent them hurtling beyond Spain 1-0 in a rerun of the 2004 final. Physical and with a winning mindset bordering on the obsessive, they had an own goal from Rocío Gálvez to thank for their success, with Lena Pauels pulling off an outstanding late save to deny Laura Ortega's header. Had it gone in, Norway would have gone through instead.
France claimed top spot in Group A courtesy of an early goal in the pool decider against Sweden though neither of the group winners would have things their own way in two contrasting semi-finals. Germany and Sweden shared six goals in a classic encounter that proved a test of endurance and application while France and Spain served up a technical treat in Lod. If the styles were different, the key themes were the same, best summarised by UEFA technical observer Hope Powell. "The matches here have been played in blocks of momentum, swinging one way and then the other." These last-four tussles were identical also in their conclusion, both being decided in penalty shoot-outs.
Even so, there was no sign of the goal frenzy in Netanya ahead of that first semi-final. Germany and Sweden had managed to find the net only seven times in their combined six group stage outings, but with six in 90 minutes gave Eurosport audiences an impressive exhibition of the WU19 game in a match described by Barrling as "the best youth match I've ever seen".
Germany had looked fatigued at the denouement of their group stage clincher against Spain and were less energetic in their play, despite taking a 12th-minute lead from a set piece. Sweden's defence was static in facing Jenny Gaugigl's free-kick and Knaak attacked the ball to head into the corner. But in Blackstenius, Sweden had an eternal threat in attack – one which, Meinert would later admit, "we couldn't really deal with".
Making clever runs off the shoulders of either centre-back, Blackstenius had the nous to drop into pockets behind the defence, the speed and the strength to make space for her runs, and the intelligence to play the right ball once her colleagues were up in support. It was a combination that would yield the equaliser as from one such sojourn down the left, Blackstenius fed Linköping club colleague Tove Almqvist, whose precise shot from 20 metres curved away from Pauels and into the corner. Sweden had been behind for only nine minutes.
Proving Powell's point about momentum, the moment carved out by Blackstenius would help swing the pendulum back towards Sweden and she was not finished yet. Pauels had already been called into action to beat away one of her efforts before being powerless to repel her header from an Anna Oskarsson cross. "Blackstenius is really important to Sweden and with her ability to hold up the ball, has been able to draw in defenders and attract open spaces," noted UEFA technical observer Hesterine de Reus.
Germany had struggled to reach their forwards in the first period and helped to arrest that with a substitution early in the second half, replacing holding midfielder Rieke Dieckmann with Madeline Gier. Within a minute, they were level as Knaak was first to another Germany dead ball – this one a corner – and Ehegötz turned it in from close range. The next alteration to personnel from Meinert was even quicker to reap rewards. Lea Schüller's first contribution crossed for Gier who controlled tidily on her right foot to take the ball inside Sweden captain Björn and finish with the left. From their second-half 'block of momentum', Germany had turned a deficit into a 3-2 advantage, again showing a refusal to accept defeat that had characterised their campaign.
Blackstenius emerged to rescue the situation once again. With 88 minutes on the clock, the No9 charged forward to receive a long ball from Lotta Ökvist after Joelle Wedemeyer had stepped up out of defence and forced home with the aid of significant deflections off Pauels and full-back Michaela Brandenburg, claiming her 18th goal of the WU19 season, breaking the record of Russia's Elena Danilova.
The forward was 'in the zone' along with the rest of her team-mates. The Swedes had practised penalties, with Barrling telling the players "it's not you who are going to be heroes, it's our goalkeeper". His prophecy would play out when Holmgren saved from Gier and Felicitas Rauch, while Sweden's kicks were flawless.
There was plenty to admire in the second semi-final too, which having kicked off at 21.30 local time finished after midnight. Spain started well, exhibiting some dazzling touches and seeing Nahikari García's clipped finish scooped off the line. Yet the tide soon turned, Léger dropping deep to accommodate the forward runs from midfield of Juliane Gathrat and opening space in a way that had not been evident in the first match. As well as poise on the ball, Léger was able to use force as well, demonstrated when she blasted the opener from the edge of the penalty box on 36 minutes.
Spain levelled before half-time. Andrea Sánchez outstripped Marion Romanelli down the left of the area and clipped the ball delightfully over Cindy Perrault. From there, the status quo was maintained on the scoreboard though the head-to-head battles on the pitch were absorbing. Spain conceded the initiative once Pilar Garrote was substituted in the second half, after which the sides traded chances and both struck the crossbar in extra time. France replaced goalkeeper Perrault with Romaine Bruneau five minutes before the shoot-out but she was unable to save any of Spain's five conversions and when Léger put the tenth over the top, Spain were through to set up a repeat of the 2012 final.