Some of the brightest talents playing for the biggest teams are shining for Spain at the European U-21 Championships
Excellent performance and full marks in the first round of the tournament. The Spanish U-21 National team beat Serbia last Friday (1-0) and, after previously pummeling Macedonia (5-0) and defeating powerful Portugal (3-1), has positioned itself as one of the main title contenders in the European Under-21 Championship in Poland.
Such a brilliant job by Albert Celades’ men deserves some sort of closer look, especially taking into consideration that most of the players in the starting line-up (more on that later) are already playing for top-level teams in La Liga.
Nobody needs a briefing on Marco Asensio, Real Madrid’s extraordinary medifielder; or Saul Níguez, Atlético´s box-to-box man. Malaga’s striker Sandro Ramirez has completed an excellent season in La Rosaleda, while Jose Luis Gayà has improved a lot with a struggling Valencia and defender Jorge Meré has been actually the only bright spot in a deplorable season for Sporting de Gijón.
Right now, the fans’ interest in Spain’s national team is at a turning point. 2010 brought a World Cup and, two years later, the same team conquered its second European Cup in a row. For six years, Spain was an unbeatable beast, the football world’s ogre that never gave in.
Then the 2014 World Cup came along and Vicente del Bosque’s men were absolutely spanked in an event where they were the reigning champions and absolutely everyone was out seeking their blood. The defeat against a Netherlands side hungry for revenge after that famous Andrés Iniesta goal in the 113th minute in South Africa was especially tough.
In 2016, history repeated itself with an appalling last minute fall against Croatia that forced Spain into facing Italy in the quarterfinals. Typical Italian competitiveness ensued and Spain came back home far too early once again.
Two huge disappointments in a row that caused Vicente del Bosque’s departure and Julen Lopetegui’s arrival on the bench, with a severe need for new blood in a lineup with too many veterans. That has been Lopetegui’s top priority: regenerating an aged national team. And, judging by the Under-21 squad’s abilities, the Spanish coach has got a huge pool of resources to fish in.
This U-21 team is skilled. This U-21 is resourceful. This side has some of the best raw materials to work with. But, above all, Celades’ men have plenty of experience in their lockers. All of the players have worked their way up the ranks into playing with their clubs in La Liga. Let’s continue naming some of them: Kepa Arrizabalaga just won’t stop growing as Athletic Club’s goalkeeper, Héctor Bellerín has made Arsenal’s right wing his new home; Gerard Deulofeu has already player at top level teams both in Spain, England and Italy.
Let’s not forget a very important detail: all of the above players are part of the usual starting XI… but Celades’ choices can be even richer and deeper if we look at the bench: U-21 Spain’s alternatives include in its ranks names such as Valencia’s wonder-kid Carlos Soler, Real Betis’ tremendous Daniel Ceballos, Inaki Williams of Athletic Bilbao and striker, Borja Mayoral, who has played in Germany and is ready to keep on working to achieve success in Real Madrid… you know the drill.
Regardless of winning the U-21 Championship in Poland or not, Spanish ‘aficionados’ have realized over the last few months that the future doesn’t look as bleak as it seemed in 2016 after getting knocked out of the European Championship in France.
There was a time, a decade ago, when in fact the youth national teams were the ones to win championships and conquer trophies. Dominance was passed over to the first team, and it remained there for three big summer tournaments in a row. Now, it’s the time to pass on the torch and leave the ‘kids’ to play freely: they may well be Spain’s best shot at becoming world beaters again.