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.
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.