Move over Xavi & Iniesta! Saul, Asensio & Ceballos lead Spain's new golden generation

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La Roja meet Germany in the final of the Under-21 European Championship on Friday and their talents point to a bright future for the senior side too


When Spain crashed out of the World Cup in the group stages at Brazil 2014, it looked like the end of an era. Disappointing defeats to Netherlands and Chile brought down the final curtain for a golden generation of talent that had won three major tournaments between 2008 and 2012. 

Saul hat-trick sends Spain to U21 final

Xavi, Xabi Alonso and David Villa all quit the national team after that and there was further frustration ahead for fans of La Roja as their team suffered a last-16 loss to Italy at Euro 2016. That, if anything, seemed like confirmation that their spectacular cycle of success really was over.

But just a year on from that setback in Paris, Spain's supporters have plenty of reason to be optimistic once more. Their senior side again appears strong under new coach Julen Lopetegui and at the Under-21 European Championship in Poland, their youngsters are showing that a brilliant future lies ahead.

Albert Celades' side swept aside Macedonia in their opening match, a 5-0 win that included a wonderful hat-trick from Real Madrid's 20-year-old Marco Asensio along with goals from Saul Niguez and Gerard Deulofeu (from the penalty spot).

Spain U21 graphic

A 3-1 victory over Portugal followed, with Saul, Sandro Ramirez and Inaki Williams on target, before a 1-0 success in the final group game against Serbia as Denis Suarez scored for what was the squad's second string as Celades made 11 changes.

Spain 'blessed' to have Asensio - Celades

Spain then met Italy in the last four on Tuesday and overcame the Azzurri thanks to a superb second-half hat-trick from Saul, the Atletico midfielder once again highlighting his knack of scoring vital goals with three fantastic finishes in a 3-1 success.

The win was made easier by the dismissal of Italy's Roberto Gagliardini after 58 minutes, yet it was still a performance packed full of impressive individual displays from Spain's stars of tomorrow.

Saul's progress at Atletico has seen him stand out in this tournament. The midfielder already has 136 first-team appearances under his belt for the Rojiblancos, including a Champions League final in 2015-16, and he is highly rated by club and country.

"Over and above his footballing qualities that we are all aware of, his hunger and commitment are tremendous," Celades said on Tuesday. "It is a gift for us to have a player like Saul."

Dani Ceballos Spain U21

Marco Asensio

Saul has already appeared for Spain's senior side and so too has Asensio, who marked a dream debut season at Real Madrid last term with 10 goals (including one each in his first games in Liga, Copa, the UEFA Super Cup and the Champions League, before scoring in the final against Juventus earlier this month as well).

"He is an example to all of us as a player who has come from the senior national team, and from the Champions League, and who has played with the motivation he has shown. We are blessed to have a lad with his quality, as a footballer and a person," Celades said after his hat-trick against Macedonia.

Ceballos denies Real Madrid deal

Asensio will be joined at the Santiago Bernabeu next season by Marcos Llorente, a promising defensive midfielder with excellent technical ability who was key in the success of Alaves during his spell on loan last season.

Another player who looks like he will end up at Real is Dani Ceballos, the 20-year-old Betis midfielder whose sublime showing on Tuesday overshadowed even the hat-trick scored by Saul. His ability to carry the ball from deep, beat players and pick out team-mates with his remarkable range of passing makes him one of the game's most exciting talents.

Hector Bellerin Spain Under-21

Meanwhile, Barcelona are keen to sign both Hector Bellerin and Deulofeu this summer, with Sandro Ramirez set to join Everton after a super season with Malaga and Carlos Soler already a key player at Valencia.

So Spain's tradition of highly skilled technical players is continuing with a new batch of talent that has the potential to lead La Roja to great things once again, both at youth and senior level.

Friday is Deulofeu D-day for Barcelona

One big plus point is that those players have been able to develop in La Liga, which gave 38,891 minutes of action to U-21 footballers last season, over 5,000 more than in Serie A and the Bundesliga and more than double the Premier League's total. And it is clearly paying dividends at the European Championship.

"We are really happy with what we have done in this tournament," Celades said after the win against Italy. "We have great players and a great group."

That is undoubtedly true and whatever happens in the final against Germany on Friday, Spain's future looks to be in super shape with the likes of Asensio, Saul, Ceballos, Deulofeu, Bellerin and Llorente all pushing to be part of the World Cup next year in Russia and set to be protagonists for the senior sides for many more years after that.