Walter Townsend reviews Spain's performance at the European U-21 tournament…After finding themselves in a tough group that included Germany and England, Spain came into the European U-21 tournament in bullish mood, aiming to claim a prize that has eluded them since 1998.
However, the young Spanish side weren’t able to repeat the feat of their senior counterparts from 12 months ago and tumbled out of the tournament after recording a win, a draw and a loss.
Decimated by success
After breezing through qualification, Spain were immediately installed by many as favourites to claim the prize, however the reality proved different. It should be noted that Spain were missing several of their players, who had been drafted into the senior side to play in the Confederations Cup. The most notable absentee was Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, whose calming presence in the centre of the defence was sorely missed. Also unavailable were Juan Mata and Sergio Busquets, both of whom made significant contributions to qualification, but were cherry-picked by Vicente del Bosque.
In that respect therefore the Spanish campaign overall can be considered a success, as arguably the most important aspect of Under-21 football is to prepare young prospects for the rigours of international football. Judging by the impression the aforementioned have made on the senior side, then regardless of the results in Sweden, Spain have produced a successful generation of youngsters in this current Under-21 side.
A failure to take control
However, in terms of the performance in Sweden there is very little positive to take from Spain’s tournament, after they failed to match up with the two other big-hitters in the group, England and Germany. A good start against the Germans in their first group match evaporated as they allowed their opposition to take control in the second half and against England they seldom troubled Joe Hart in goal.
It was the second match that proved to be the turning point in Spain’s tournament, and more precisely the penalty save from Sergio Asenio during the first half. A moment which should have imbued the Spanish side with a fresh sense of confidence and purpose and potentially knocked England back, it actually worked in reverse. It was the English who took the most from Milner’s failure to convert the spot-kick, going on to force the issue with two goals, whilst Spain appeared deflated.
After scoring goals at will during qualification the attack melted away in Sweden with just two goals in the three games, both against Finland. With neither Krkic nor Jurado making any impression in the final third, Spain were largely impotent both goals arriving from set pieces.
The lack of forward momentum can’t just be pinpointed to the forwards, as the service from the midfield was largely disappointing. This may be traced back to the lack of an obvious centre-forward, with both Krkic and Jurado encouraged to get in between the opposition defence and midfield, so there was seldom a focal point for a ball forward. Spain improved against Finland with Newcastle forward Xisco holding the line, but it was all too little.
With news filtering through against Finland that the score in the other game stood at 1-1 many of the Spanish players seemed resigned to their fate, with TV footage capturing several of them laughing and joking as they came off at half-time. This lack of seriousness from the Spanish, with their tournament future hanging in the balance, especially from substitute Bojan Krkic, highlighted how bothered they were about progress into the semis.
It was telling that Krkic wasn’t given a run-out in the second half against Finland. How Juan Ramon Lopez Caro must have wished for the same reaction England boss Stuart Pearce got from subsitute Theo Walcott, who came into the match against Spain fired up and desperate to prove a point to his manager.
Defence to the fore
Ultimately Spain’s stars failed to perform although there were one or two who can be spared criticism. Pre- tournament Real Valladolid’s keeper Sergio Asenjo was rumoured to be on the transfer radar of several big clubs. His excellent performances in keeping two clean sheets, and saving a penalty in the game he conceded in, will have brought him to the attention of many more.
Additionally Marc Torrejon from Espanyol had a decent tournament at the back and was rewarded for his efforts with a goal against Finland after seeing a header bounce off the bar against Germany in the first match. He made a number of excellent interventions against Germany and showed he is a fine prospect for the future. He could do worse than to remain at current club Espanyol and listen to his manager Mauricco Pochettino, a fine defender in his day.
More questions than answers
Spain now need to consider very carefully exactly what they do with their players who remain eligible for 2011, having already siphoned off the best starlets for the senior team. The Spanish FA will need to decide whether they retain the players who failed to perform in Sweden. This will be the third youth tournament with this crop (World Youth Championships 2007, European U-19 Championships 2008 and European U-21 Championships 2009) in which Spain have failed to progress to the latter stages, so it may be best to start with a fresh batch of youngsters.
Walter Townsend, Goal.com