Spain’s under-21 team has emulated its big brother by being crowned European champions in consecutive tournaments.
The genetic engineering from the land of the King seems stronger now more than ever before.
The Under-21 finals mirrored the Euro 2012 finals held in Poland and Ukraine last year, pitting rivals and continental powerhouses Spain up against Italy. In Israel on Tuesday the same was true, Spain yet again found themselves up against the Italians, only at a more youthful level.
For Kiev 2012, read Jerusalem 2013. La Rojita were up against the Azzurini, with glory up for grabs and a chance for revenge as a sub-plot for the young Italians.
At the final whistle, however, the script read more or less the same: Spain were triumphant. La Rojita had maintained the pace and kept the trend set by their more illustrious elder brothers.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta can see themselves in Koke and Isco respectively. The latter two have moulded their games around their predecessors, and although there is indeed some difference in their styles, the overall effect and impact on their respective midfields are ultimately the same.
Iniesta’s movement is more succinct than Isco’s and Koke’s passing is not quite at the same flawless level as Xavi’s but their roles are almost inter-distinct. One thing is indisputable about all of them, though: they share the same DNA - that Spanish DNA we have all come to expect, of winning.
Led by their inspirational captain Thiago Alcantara, La Rojita picked apart teams on their way to the final showpiece. The overall quality of this team is remarkable, really. From the first whistle they looked different class, older even. They executed their much vaunted tiki-taka with a mastery beyond most senior international teams. Thiago hit a ‘perfect’ hat-trick in an enthralling first half: scoring with his head, left-foot and right foot. It is an enviable achievement for any player at any level.
The match seemed to set into a similar tactical rhythm as the Euro finals last year after the first goal, Spain to pass Italy into submission. All that changed with Ciro Immobile’s deft finish.
All of a sudden the calm gave way for a brief storm. Spain, for a moment, looked unsettled, the youth in them showing signs of fragility. David de Gea, breached for the first time, screamed at his defence which had been horribly exposed by a long ball. Maybe, just maybe, this time the Spaniards would break. Italy seemed to sense it, most neutrals anticipated it, but they were all given a harsh reminder that this was indeed Spain still.
Once Thiago had scored from a Koke pass worthy of Xavi himself and then converted from the spot after a foul on Tello, the Italians were hanging on as Spain pushed for more.
Regini’s foul on Montoya for a second penalty converted by Isco was symbolic of an Azzurini whose journey looked done. Spain had rediscovered themselves.
A difference of quality and experience proved to be their Achilles heel. PSG’s Marco Verratti rarely got time to prompt like Andrea Pirlo from midfield. His team-mates could not, as much as they tried, stop the Spaniards who are fully established at a high level of club football.
One of the benefits of La Liga’s cash crisis beyond the big two has been to grant younger players earlier chances. In Italian football, as in much of public life, an experienced head will always get the nod and it showed. The Italians were made up largely of a bunch of players loaned out by Serie B clubs thus never really amass major game time in the lower division in stark contrast to their contemporaries. Nothing much different could have been expected.
It would be plain ignorant not to point out the fact that Spanish and Italian football has not achieved eminence via importation of foreigners. Grooming home-grown players is the norm rather than the exception in La Liga and Serie A and the fruits are there for all and sundry to see. The percentage of indigenous players in these two leagues dwarfs that of the Premier League as does the level of skills in coaching, player development and technique integration.
Youth football is given huge importance in these two nations. They almost seem to pride themselves in their nations being regular winners in such tournaments. Spain has won both Under-19 and Under-21 cups in 2011 and Italy were on course to lift a sixth crown if they had trumped the Spaniards in Israel.
They played with team ethic and tactical mastery much like their senior brothers which got them to the final. Credit needs to be given to them for getting past the much fancied and somewhat stronger Dutch in the semi-finals.
However, this latest generation of Spaniards certainly, without a shadow of a doubt, will be more than ready to continue the recent dominance established by their senior counterparts.
De Gea will be next Casillas, Arbeloa is already more promising than Arbeloa, Bartra for Ramos, Koke for Xavi, Isco for Iniesta, Thiago for Pedro and Morata for Torres or Villa. The Under-19 team is also offering another untouched pool of promising players for the national team conveyor belt. Ominous.
Italy, Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Uruguay and everyone else: brace yourselves.
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