The Estonian under-19s men's football team came back from two goals down at half time to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-2 in dramatic fashion on Monday. The win guarantees Estonia's place in next spring's "Elite" qualifying round for the 2023 European U-19 Championship finals.
Estonia started the qualifying tournament, which took place in Gdynia, Poland, with a surprise 2-0 win over Italy thanks to two late breakaway goals. A 2-0 defeat to hosts Poland in their second match, meant everything was left to play for ahead of Monday night's final group game with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Unfortunately for Estonia, the first half didn't go according to plan, with goals from Matej Šakota and Antonio Prskalo putting their opponents into a commanding two-goal lead with just half an hour played.
With Estonia trailing 2-0 at the break, whatever head coach Alo Bärengrub said in his half-time team talk clearly did the trick. On 56 minutes, Viimsi JK midfielder Gregor Lehtmets pulled one back as Estonia finally got a foothold in the game.
With 86 minutes played, Levadia Tallinn striker Daniel Luts brought Estonia level. Italy drawing 0-0 against Poland in the group's other ongoing match, meant, at that point, Estonia seemed to have done enough to ensure their place in the Elite qualifying round, which takes place in the spring.
However, there was still time for more drama, with late goals in both matches, ultimately deciding the outcome of the group. First, Italy scored against Poland, thanks to a 94th minute penalty from Samuele Vignato, which put them above Estonia in the table.
However, the final word went to Nõmme United's Egert Õunapuu, who struck in injury time for the second time in three games during the tournament to complete the comeback against Bosnia and Herzegovina, deny Italy and send Estonia through.
"Because we were 2-0 down at half-time it was obvious that we had to take risks," Estonian U-19 head coach Alo Bärengrub told ERR after the match.
"But how we manage to get the result in the final minutes of both games, I really don't know. I think we would have been happy with a draw. I wasn't aware of what exactly was happening in the Italian game at the end. It was hard to follow, but that's what made it a great group and a dramatic finale."
"I'm not saying to be self-congratulatory, but you always have to believe. Whether that's considered naive or not, you always have to believe. It's possible for the smaller teams to win against the bigger ones," Bärengrub continued, adding that, even before the tournament he had faith that his players could reach the Elite round.
"I have to say that I believed, although of course there were few believers. But if you're in a role like this, and you don't believe your players have even the slightest chance of surprising the big teams and winning, then you're better off not being here."
The Estonian team will now play in the Elite qualifying round next spring, where twenty eight teams will battle it out for the remaining seven spots in the U-19 men's European Championship finals which take place in Malta.
"We're going there with the idea of taking it one game at a time, and whether we get anything is up to us as we go along," said Bärengrub.
"It's exactly the same situation as now. Obviously, there the same countries there who we could have faced in this tournament. We have to believe again and work like crazy on defense, to build our game on that and, once again - believe!"
Editor: Michael Cole