Les Bleuets strolled through Group D with nine points from a possible nine, while Ukraine gave Spain a good run for their money in Group B but were forced to settle for second place.
By putting Norway and Italy to the sword in their opening two matchdays, France had their customary knockout place rubber-stamped before their final Group D encounter with Switzerland, where top spot was still on the line.
Sylvain Ripoll’s side simply needed to avoid defeat in order to assure themselves of a first-placed finish, and while Dan Ndoye cancelled out Amine Gouiri’s opener from the penalty spot, the floodgates opened in the second 45, as Rayan Cherki, Bradley Barcola and Maxence Caqueret contributed to a 4-1 hiding.
As a result, France eased into the quarter-finals as one of only two teams with a perfect tally of nine points – the other being England – and Les Bleuets will soon compete in the last eight for the 10th time in 10 tournaments, having also endured six failed qualification periods between 2007 and 2017.
Between 1988 and 2019, France successfully progressed from six successive quarter-final appearances at the Under-21 Euros – winning their solitary title in the former year – but that streak was snapped against the Netherlands in 2021.
Injuries are also threatening to derail a France contingent boasting plenty of household names, and Ripoll’s side have just one clean sheet to show from their last eight games, handing Ukraine a glimmer of hope in their bid to reach only a second quarter-final.
Having both got the better of already-eliminated Romania and Croatia without conceding a goal, Ukraine and Spain’s top-of-the-table clash in Group B promised to be an enthralling affair, and the contest more than lived up to the pre-match billing.
Twice Ukraine went ahead courtesy of Bogdan Viunnyk’s header and Georgiy Sudakov’s spot kick, but twice they were pegged back through an Ivan Zhelizko own goal and Abel Ruiz, who came off the bench to net a 90th-minute leveller for La Rojita and cruelly deny Ukraine a first-placed finish.
Finishing level with Spain on seven points, Ruslan Rotan’s men were left to rue a marginally inferior goal difference – +3 compared to La Rojita’s +4 – but vengeance could soon be on the cards, as the winner of this contest will meet Spain or Switzerland in the final four.
The Young men are entering unfamiliar territory, though, as they have only ever reached the knockout stages in one previous Under-21 European Championship – getting as far as the final in 2006 before losing to the Netherlands – but they enter Sunday’s game having remarkably netted in each of their last 18 matches, losing just two of them.
Ukraine unsurprisingly have just one win from their eight meetings with France at Under-21 level -all of which have come in Euros qualifying – but half of those contests have ended all square, including an exhilarating 3-3 stalemate a little over 12 months ago.
France Under-21s European Under-21 Championship form:
France Under-21s form (all competitions):
Ukraine Under-21s European Under-21 Championship form:
Ukraine Under-21s form (all competitions):
We say: France Under-21s 2-1 Ukraine Under-21s (a.e.t)
Showcasing a penchant for goals ahead of a meeting with a leaky France backline, Ukraine have every right to dream of progression to the semi-finals, especially with Les Bleuets suffering two devastating injury blows in the past week.
It would not be a shock to see the clock tick to 120 minutes at the Cluj Arena, but France’s wealth of attacking talent in reserve could prove telling in extra time, potentially giving rise to a nervy win for Ripoll’s team as Ukraine’s journey comes to a close.