One of Europe’s strongest youth international sides, Spain, have always been considered as perennial contenders for youth honours at every level of the junior game. Their record at European Under-19 level is outstanding, winning four of the last eight tournaments. However, the last two years have ended disappointingly from a Spanish perspective, with the side exiting at the group stage on both occasions.
The confirmation of third place at the 2008 Czech Republic tournament was sufficient to ensure Spain’s place in Egypt on the world stage. Though they haven’t been at their best, hopes will be high they have reserved their best form for this biggest podium.
Just over two years ago in Canada, Spain looked like one of the strongest candidates for outright glory, with a team packed full of current La Liga stars, including Juan Mata, Diego Capel, Gerard Pique and Esteban Granero. Spain enjoyed an excellent start to the tournament, making relatively light work of the group stage, but found themselves paired against Brazil in the round of 16.
In one of the matches of the tournament, the two youth heavyweights were locked at 2-2 after normal time, before Spain found a little extra in reserve to clinch the tie thanks to goals from Alberto Bueno and Adrian Lopez.
In the quarter-final, they came up against one of the surprise sides of the tournament: the Czech Republic. A goalless 90 minutes saw the game go to extra-time, and although both sides scored, neither could find the clinching goal and the tie went to penalties. It was the Czechs who held their nerve, with Pique missing the vital fifth penalty.
Whilst the tournament wasn’t a success in terms of victory, it did bring through a number of excellent young players, many of whom are now established in the domestic championship, which, to an extent, is the aim of football at this level. Nevertheless, after the disappointing outcome of the U-21 European Championship, in which Spain were dumped out at the group stage in Sweden, the pressure is on to improve results.
Establishing winning credentials
Since the tournament in Canada, Spain have failed to hit those heights at European level in the last two seasons, and haven’t survived the group stages of the last two tournaments. This squad is comprised of five players from the victorious 2007 European U-19 Championship squad, and four who helped Spain to third place at the European U-17 Championships in 2006.
The majority of the squad were involved over the summer in the Mediterranean Games, an event similar to the Olympics. Spain took glory in the football competition, beating France in the semi-final and then hosts Italy in the final. So there is certainly a strong winning mentality within this team.
It’s been ten years since Spain last tasted victory at U-20 level, when a squad containing Iker Casillas, Carlos Marchena and Gabri took gold in Nigeria, beating Japan 4-1 thanks to a brace from current Ipswich Town striker Pablo Counago. With a squad made up of players largely based at La Liga’s top sides, fans of the national side will be hoping that the youngsters can taste success in Africa.
Players to Watch
There are already several established first team players, including Sergio Asenjo and Cesar Azpilicueta, both of whom featured earlier this year in Sweden for the U-21 side. However, there are also several other outstanding prospects in this team.
Fran Merida may well develop into an excellent player for Arsenal and Spain. Whilst other starlets at the Emirates Stadium, such as Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are attracting much attention, Merida has quietly evolved into a useful attacking midfielder. Although Spain failed to get out of the group stage in the Ukraine at the European U-19 tournament over the summer, Merida caught the eye with intelligent play and some excellent through passes.
Much travelled Aaron Niguez is another who could excel in Egypt. The midfielder has already had spells playing in Greece, Scotland and Spain, and is currently on loan at Celta Vigo from Valencia. He has already made his debut in the U-21 side and finished as top scorer for Spain when they won the European U-19 title in 2007.
Goalkeepers: Sergio Asenjo (Atletico Madrid), Diego Marino (Villarreal), Tomas Mejias (Real Madrid)
Defenders: Cesar Azpilicueta (Osasuna), Alberto Botia (Barcelona), Alvaro Dominguez (Atletico Madrid), Andreu Fontas (Barcelona), Victor Languardia (Real Zaragoza), Jose Angel Valdes (Gijon), Didac Vila (Espanyol)
Midfielders: Jordi Alba (Valencia), Marcos Gullon (Villarreal), Ander Herrera (Real Zaragoza), Fran Merida (Arsenal), Aaron Niguez (Celta Vigo), Dani Parejo (Getafe), Oriol Romeu (Barcelona),
Attackers: Oscar de Marcos (Athletic Bilbao), Kike (Murcia), Emilo Nsue (Real Sociedad), Joselu (Celta Vigo)
September 25 – Tahiti
September 28 – Nigeria
October 1 – Venezuela
Despite recent failures to make the most of evidently talented squads, this Spanish side brims with quality and possesses a fair degree of experience. Their victory at the 2007 European Championships, featuring the core of this side, will give the expectant Spanish public hope their lads can come home with a gold medal.
Spain will face a stern test in the shape of Nigeria, who will also consider themselves potential winners of the tournament. Overall this side is more than capable of reaching the knock-out stages, and going well beyond, but may find that overall victory eludes them.
Walter Townsend, Goal.com