Five Stars of the Euro U21s

Spain continued their dominance of almost every youth level by easily defeating Italy 4-2 in the Euro U21s Final on Tuesday night in Israel.  Here are a rundown of the five standout performers of the tournament:

5) Adam Maher

Nestling in front of Kevin Strootman and Marco van Ginkel in a midfield three that made the Dutch look as strong contenders for the tournament, Maher was given the role of inventor in this talented Dutch squad.  The former two may have ultimately disappointed with respect to the hype before a ball was kicked, but Maher rose to the occasion – always searching the ball and attempting to spark fires of creativity with every pass. He came agonizingly close to scoring one of the goals of the tournament when his free-kick crashed against the post in the semi-finals against the Italians.  As the main creator, Maher’s influence on the tournament was greatly limited though by the extreme wastefulness of his team-mates, most notably in the semis against Italy when the Dutch rained shots down on the Italian goal only to be outdone by a killer Fabio Borini strike late in the game.  Maher undoubtedly came out of the tournament with his already burgeoning reputation growing (check out his beautiful solo golt in the Dutch Cup final against PSV) and leaves this tournament with it even bigger.

 

4) Alessandro Florenzi

The Roma youth graduate had his breakout season in the 2012/13 Serie A season, a somewhat impressive feat considering the ever changing style of the Roma management these days.  Some of the Italian squad came into the tournament with big expectations surrounding them – the likes of Marco Verratti, Fabio Borini, Manolo Gabbiadini and Lorenzo Insigne.  All of these players had strong tournaments, so it was difficult to separate one from the herd as the stand-out.  That was until the final.  The Spanish decimated the Azzurrini and it felt as though they managed it without having to step out of second gear.  All of the supposedly big performers for Italy vanished (Bronini popped up with a goal when the game was already over) except for Florenzi.  He was at the heart of every move that panicked Spain, creating one audacious chance for himself with a deft flick over the Spanish defenderss head and then unleashing a volley to provoke a strong save from De Gea, and later missing another.  But this match if anything showed Florenzi was the most at home at this level.  An impressive showing and a fitting way to cap a fantastic season for Florenzi.

3) Isco

The little man needs no introduction.  He was one of three stand-outs in an entire team that played the perfect tournament.  He was given the freedom to roam and wreak havoc wherever he went.  Perhaps his most memorable single moment of his was the goal (shown below) against Norway in the semi-finals which effectively sealed Spain’s passage to the final.  Isco is a player full of magic moments, one you never tire of watching.  An undoubted future star of the senior side.

 

2) Thiago Alcantara

With the rumours mill bursting with stories of Thiago’s potential move away from Barcelona, there was no more fitting a way for him to end the tournament than by grabbing the headlines with a first-half hat-trick.  His dominant display in the final against Italy was indicative of the rest of his tournament – imposing, flawless and irresistible.  He was an incessant thorn in the opposition sides, combining sublimely with Isco, both of whom complemented the attacking flow of the side perfectly with the explosive pace of Cristian Tello.  Sometimes watching Thiago playing beside Xavi or Iniesta it can be easy to forget just how good he is for his age, but seeing him in an environment with players his own age, it becomes clear very quickly he will go on to become one of the, if not the, best midfielder(s) of his generation.

 

1) Assier Illarramendi

And in at number one comes the heartbeat and the unsung hero of the Spain side.  Illarramendi acted as the deep-lying playmaker, the orchestrator of this electrifying side.  The puppet-master.  Always open for possession, constantly finding players with forward passes, tiring the opposition with his never-ending movement of the ball.  And Illarramendi came into this tournament as one of the most underrated players of this squad, but as vital to its success as any one of the big names.  It is also important to note he had the most influential season in the Spanish Primera out of everyone in the Spanish team, driving Real Sociedad to a very surprising 4th placed finish by the end of the season, earning them a spot in the qualification rounds of the Champions League next season.  Illarramendi also proved to be more than a handful coming forward and played the pass of the tournament in the group stage match against Germany when he slipped through Alvaro Vazquez with what can only be described as a sensational 60 yard daisy cutter, only for Vazquez to be denied by a tremendous save.  Below is a short video of Illarramendi’s ability for the sublime:

And in the wake of this tournament it is no surprise to see Arsenal have reportedly bid £10million for him and you can count on other big guns showing real interest in this gem.  If he continues to progress the way he has been over the past two years and that price will double in a year.  A joy to watch.

World Cup U20s: Key Players

The Under 20 World Cup gets underway in Turkey on Friday.  Here are the best players worth keeping an eye out for:

Nico Lopez – Uruguay

The Roma starlet burst on to the scene in Serie A, earning the Giallorossi a last minute 2-2 draw at home to Catania on the opening match of last season with a stunning goal (shown below).  Nico struggled for playing time throughout the rest of the campaign but that didn’t stop him terrorizing defences in the Copa Sudamericano with Uruguay U20s, finishing the tournament as top goalscorer amongst some sterling names.  He is a nimble, tricky customer with a left foot that will punish you if given a yard.

 

Angelo Henriquez – Chile

The man who set the Copa Libertadores alight in 2012 playing for Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile.  A frightening talent who since joining Manchester United and being on loan at Wigan, you can see him physically evolving to prepare himself for the riggers of the Premier League.  He stands out as the brightest light in a very exciting Chile side in this tournament, a team I expect to be the most entertaining.

 

Ross Barkley – England

Compared to Wayne Rooney after breaking through at Everton, the similarities are plain to see.  He shares that same swagger and volatility to his game, something that constantly has him dancing off the edge of genius and madness.  But Barkley is without a doubt the most exciting player in this England U20 squad.

 

André Gomes – Portugal

Gomes is a very tactically aware player, a strength which allows him to play numerous roles in the midfield.  His greatest qualities lie in his techinical abilities, long and short range passing as well as a ferocious shot from distance with either foot make him a constant threat.  He has already impressed greatly with Portugal at the under 19 level, scoring in two of the three matches Portgual played in the 2012 UEFA European Under 19 Championship.  And in his breakout season for Benfica in 2012/13, he earned a call up to the senior squad against Ecaudor, despite being only a peripheral figure in the squad due to the performances of Nemanja Matic and Enzo Perez.

 

Juan Fernando Quintero – Colombia

One of the sensations of the Serie A season, Quintero was a mainstay in an attack minded Pescara side.  In the previously mentioned Copa Sudamericano tournament in January of this year, it was Quintero who was awarded the Player of the Tournament.  With a left-foot that takes me back to the great Austrian wizard of the 90s Andreas Herzog, Quintero is a danger from anywhere on the pitch.  Set-pieces included.  He also loves to nutmeg opponents and plays as though he has eyes in the back of his head.  Quintero is worth the admittance fee alone.

 

Salih Ucan – Turkey

After joining Fenerbahce last summer, one the great hopes of Turkish football had to make do with late substitution appearances and cup games.  But don’t doubt the 2012/13 season was huge for him, despite the lack of playing time he was still exposed to life in a  huge club, the Europea League and the expectation of winning.  Salih Ucan is a player who likes to up the tempo when required, very capable in swift passing moves, already thinking of his next pass before he’s making the current.  His creativity and ability to protect possession will be vital to Turkey’s progress out  of a potential banana skin of a group and the expectation being the home team brings.

 

Lucas Digne – France

With ex-Lille manager Rudi Garcia’s move to Roma in the past week being confirmed, seeing this left-back linked to Roma for €12million was expected.  Thrilling coming forward, another in a long line of talented French left-backs.  Lovely whip and weight on his crosses, excellent reading of the timing of the cross and he does not shy away from the defensive aspect of his game, pbeing particularly aggresive in the tackle.  His long-throws would also give Tony Pulis a wet dream, especially given the height of this French squad.  Destined for big things.

 

Florian Thauvin – France

Thauvin experienced his breakout year in Ligue 1 this season, scoring 10 goals for Bastia and earning him a winter move to Lille (although he returned to Bastia on loan until the end of the season).  Although left-footed, he will play most likely as the right midfielder in the French team.  Deceptively skillful, particularly at dragging the ball just when the opposing defender looks like he is about to win possession, Thauvin comes into this tournament playing a very strong French midfield alongside the likes of Paul Paogbia and Kondogbia.  A lot of the creative burden of this side will fall on his ability to carve out opportunities and shown by his scoring record form midfield, Thauvin never shies from having a pop himself.

 

Igor Lichnovsky – Chile

Recently linked to Barcelona and Chelsea, although the link does come somewhat pre-mature for the centre-back.  Comfortable in possession and bringing the ball out of defence to transition to attack, Lichnovsky also brings some much needed height to the Chilean back-line.  With what looks like it will be a very open and entertaining Chile, it will be intriguing to see how he copes.

Luciano Vietto – Coolness Personified

One of the hottest properties in South America, up-and-coming Racing Club centre-forward Luciano Vietto, gave a lesson on how to re-take a penalty on Friday night against Union Santa Fe.  At 0-0, Vietto earned Racing Club a penalty, he buried it home only for the referee to say Vietto had taken the penalty before he had blown his whistle and as a result had to re-take it.  Watch the video below to see how Vietto reacted under pressure…

Copa Libertadores Semi-Final 1 Preview: Club Olimpia – Independiente Santa Fe

Tonight sees the return of the 2013 Copa Libertadores with the first semi-final between Olimpia Asuncion and Independiente Santa Fe.

Both sides topped their respective groups in the earlier stages of the tournament.  Santa Fe seen off Gremio on goal difference before emphatically eliminating Real Garcilaso 5-1 over two legs.  Olimpia knocked out Copa Sudamericano finalists Tigre in the Final 16 before defeating Brasileiro champions Fluminense in the Quarter-Finals.  Despite getting this far, it is the winner of the other semi-final, Newell’s versus Atletico Mineiro, who is expected to be the clear favourite for the Copa Libertadores Final.  It would however be foolish to write-off either off these two sides and Olimpia in particular have a very rich history in this tournament, having already won it three times (most recently in 2002).

Expect this to be a very tight nervy game.  Olimpia will fear defeat and will play very conservatively, Santa Fe will look to stay tight and attack in the few moments when the Paraguayans over-commit themselves..  Olimpia have been very strong at home in the tournament, most notably annihilating the best team in Argentina Newell’s Old Boys 4-1 in the group stages.  Santa Fe though have conceded a few goals in away matches and if Olimpia smell blood early, they have enough quality to put three-four goals past them.  The one real hope that there could be goals in this is if Olimpia feel they have to finish the tie tonight through fear of playing at altitude in the away leg in Bogota.  This could perhaps drive Olimpia to score three or four goals.

Key Men

For Oilimpia, and in this first leg, there will only be three men weighed with the responsibility of winning this tie – Juan Manuel Salgueiro, Fredy Bareiro and Juan Carlos Ferreyra.  Salgueiro was last week named by Conmebol as the second top performer on the continent and going by his performances in the Copa Libertadores this year, it cannot be argued.  Time and time again he has made the difference for Olimpia and brought home the big goals, including a priceless double in the previous round to progress past Fluminense and a hat-trick in the group match against Newell’s to seal their dominance of the group.  The Oliimpia attack team up beautifully together.  Salgueiro plays off of Fereyra who is the big target man upfront and focal point of Olimpia’s attack, very good with his chest, near impossible to move off the ball and possesses a deceptively delicate touch.  These two will be vital tonight as they are the two clear stand-outs in this side and Santa Fe will more than likely issue out some of the rough treatment to both.  Bareiro feeds off of the chemistry between these two and along with Salguerio, he is joint second top scorer in the tournament with five goals a-piece so far.  Fereyra has been struggling with a thigh problem for a number of weeks now though and it is touch and go whether he will start tonight.

Salgueiro and Olimpia head coach Ever Hugo Almeida

For Santa Fe, the three players who have made the difference so far are former Boca attacking midfielder Omar Perez, and forwards Wilder Medina and Cristian Borja.  Perez supplying these two will be the only hopes of goals for Santa Fe from open play.  There’s a strong chance they could be isolated figures in Asuncion tonight.  Borja especially has a great strike rate in this year’s Copa Libertadores (scoring 4 goals) but surprisingly hasn’t been prolific outside of it.

Prediction

Although Independiente Santa Fe are going through arguably the club’s strongest spell in their history both domestically and on the continent, I still fancy Club Olimpia to progress here, so I’ll go for a 2-0 home victory.  They have had the tougher run-in so far in the competition and knocked out two very strong sides.  There is just a feeling about them in this tournament and I expect them to lay the foundations for qualification to the final with a clean home victory tonight.  When Olimpia hit their rhythm they can play at an awesome pace, and possess an aggression about them that makes Paraguayan football very exciting.  They also have a justified fear of playing at altitude in Bogota for the second leg and this will add extra motivation to their cause to get the tie as close to finished as possible tonight.

Copa Libertadores Semi Final 2 Preview: Newell’s Old Boys – Atletico Mineiro

Last night, Olimpia firmly planted one foot in the Copa Libertadores Final with a 2-0 victory over Independiente Santa Fe, now it is time for the most anticipated clash of the semis.  The hottest team in Argentina play the hottest team in Brazil.

Newell’s Old Boys have not been entirely convincing in the tournament.  They finished second in the their group to Club Olimpia, which included Olimpia thumping them 4-1 on the final matchday and very nearly resulting in a seven goal swing that would’ve knocked them out only for a second string Univesidad de Chile to fall short in the other match against Deportivo Lara after conceding late on.  Away goals were enough to see off Velez Sarsfield in the Last 16 and after two goalless matches against Boca Juniors in the Quarters, Newell’s progressed on penalties.

Atletico Mineiro set the Copa Libertadores alight early on storming to five wins out of five in the group stages before succumbing to Sao Paulo away in the final match (although Atletico had already secured top spot in the group by then).  They then humiliated one of the pre-tournament favourites Sao Paulo whom they met again in the Last 16 (best qualifier of the group stages against the worst placed qualifier, despite already being in the same group).  After two legs it finished 6-2 on aggregate to Atletico Mineiro.  The next round proved more difficult as invited guests into this season’s tournament, Mexican side Tijuana, came very close to eliminating them by missing a 92nd minute penalty in the second leg.  After an invincible looking Atletico early in the tournament, they now showed glaring weaknesses.

Key Men

For Newell’s, the standout man for them all season has been Ignacio Scocco.  If they are to win this evening he will have to be clinical. He is a tricky customer, creative as well as prolific, good at bringing others into play.  With cause for fear of the away goal, at the back it will be up to the leadership of veteran Gabriele Heinze to lead by example.  Another big name former Argentine international, Maxi Rodriguez, will also play a pivotal role as he will more than likely be asked to interrupt any attacking rhythm Atletico try to build in the midfield.  But most importantly it will be the fans who stand out for Newell’s and on a night like this there are few better.  Argentinian crowds in general are a spectacle and Rosario will be steeped in passion tonight.

The home fans tonight will be worth the viewing alone and their influence cannot be undervalued.

Altetico Mineiro boast two of the tournament’s top goalscorers, Jo and Diego Tardelli, both with six goals each so far, and supported by two incredible talents in Bernard and Ronaldinho, it is difficult to see any defence which this attack cannot pick.  Towering centre-back Rever will also be influential tonight in restoring organisation to such an attacking team that could easily fold into chaos.

 

Prediction

There has been bad blood in the last two clashes of Argentine-Brazilian sides in the continental cups recently, with both Tigre and Boca Juniors complaining of the security in Brazil treating them far too heavy-handed, to the point of intimidation.  So much so in Tigre’s case in the Copa Sudamericana Final that they refused to come out for the second half and in turn forfeited the competition.  And with big matches like this in South America, it too easily becomes petty with fouls, with referees blowing their whistle every second touch and killing any flow to the match.  I expect this game to pan out in that manner and for that reason I’m going to opt for 0-0 as the first leg scoreline.  Atletico have more than enough here to hurt Newell’s but I think the Argentinians will be too wary of the away goal to really go for it.  With such a chorus behind them though, if there is a winner here I see it being Newell’s in this leg.