Jordi Alba Celebrates Spain's Semi-Final Shootout VIctory
The beauty of this Spain team is that it keeps evolving. After technical skill and the ability to retain possession finally overcame the neurosis of past failure at Euro 2008, there came the years of control in 2010 and 2012, as
World Cup and another European Championship were collected playing safety-first keep-ball. For all the criticism of its supposed negativity in Poland and Ukraine there were signs of another Spain emerging, one that had begun to come to terms with the problem posed by an opponent that sits deep against it.
It is an issue any possession-based side will have. If you dominate the ball
to the extent that an opponent despairs of ever winning it back, that opponent
will eventually simply stick men behind the ball, allowing you possession but
trying to deny you space in the final third to create any goal scoring
opportunities. Spain's response for a long time when faced with such an opponent
has been simply to keep passing. The process is attritional but Spain
essentially knows that as long as it has the ball it isn't going to concede and
that, eventually, an opponent is likely to be worn down. A mistake -- and a goal
-- will come.
At the Euros, Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, spoke again and again
about "control." But he also spoke about "profundidad" -- depth of
field. If an opponent packs men behind the ball, what is lost is depth of field:
Spanish attacks essentially start higher up the pitch and that means that
"verticalidad" -- verticality, playing the ball towards goal -- is far
harder. The risk is that the team with the ball ends up playing too
horizontally, going back and forth across the pitch without making any progress,
without generating the burst of speed necessary to puncture a well-drilled
That is why Jordi Alba is such an important addition. Although ostensibly a
left-back, he is a converted winger and has many of the technical attributes
you'd expect of an attacking player. But vitally, he has great pace and stamina,
working up and down that left flank, and seems to have the gift of timing his
runs to arrive in space. He did it against Italy in the final of the Euros last
year and he added another two in the 3-0 win over Nigeria on Sunday.
Both those games were a little unusual in that Italy and Nigeria actually
tried to engage Spain high up the pitch and did leave space behind them. For
Spain that is a rare experience and against Nigeria it was one with which it
wasn't entirely comfortable, yielding numerous chances, particularly in the
first half, that better finishing might have punished. It may be that Spain, as
Barcelona did against Bayern Munich last season, is not very good at defending
-- or at least not at defending in the sense of thwarting an opponent coming at
it. It seems to happen often with gifted possession sides that they get so used
to defending with the ball, reducing the risk by denying the opponent the ball,
that they effectively forget the mechanics of what to do when they don't have it
and an opponent does attack them -- and of course Alba and Gerard Pique are
both Barca players.
But what Alba offers is a player who can arrive at pace onto a sideways pass,
and so turn horizontal movement into vertical movement. There are, essentially,
two ways to beat a massed defense: go round it or go through it: Alba has the
pace to create overlaps -- and conveniently does so on the left, where Spain,
with Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta sharing the midfield and forward duties,
are naturally narrow -- and he can also go through by dint of coming from deep
Just as importantly, Alba can actually defend. Dani Alves performs a similar
role on the right for Barcelona (and it may be that against better opponents
Barca decides next season it must temper the attacking urges of one or the
other) but his defensive inadequacies have regularly been exposed at
international level -- most notably against Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America
when his haplessness made the winger Marcelo Estigarribia look so potent he
earned a move from the French second division side Le Mans (who had loaned him
out to Newell's Old Boys in Argentina) to Juventus.
Alves hasn't yet been exposed in the Confederations Cup, although with he and
Marcelo (who may be even worse defensively) both pushing up, Brazil looks
horribly vulnerable to counterattacks that hit it wide. Del Bosque,
instinctively cautious, counters that threat by balancing Alba with Alvaro
Arbeloa on the right. Arbeloa seems almost archaic now, a fullback who actually
defends, but he is key to how Spain play, often shuffling across to function
almost as a third center-back (a role Sergio Busquets can also fill, dropping
back from deep midfield) when Alba advances.
Much has been made of the success of Spain at youth level, which seems to
suggest its success will endure. Perhaps the most alarming aspect for the rest
of the world, though, is that the team those players will break in to has been
together so long, has evolved so smoothly, that it has the rhythm and internal
balance of a club side.
Thiago Alcántara struck the first ever hat-trick in a one-off Under-21 final as Spain beat Italy 4-2 to retain their UEFA European U21 Championship title.
Julen Lopetegui's masterly Spain side came into the decider unbeaten in 25 competitive encounters, and though Thiago's early opener looked to have set them on course to increase that tally, Ciro Immobile soon struck back for Italy. It proved a false dawn for Devis Mangia's team, who fell behind again just after the half-hour.
The two previous finals between these nations – in 1986 and 1996 – had been won on penalties, so it was fitting that spot kicks from Thiago and Isco ultimately settled matters in Jerusalem. Fabio Borini's 80th-minute riposte was too little, too late.
Considering these two sides had conceded a solitary goal between them in Israel, few could have foreseen such a helter-skelter encounter. Álvaro Morata, the adidas Golden Boot winner with four goals, had been Spain's go-to man in their opening four fixtures and, six minutes into the showpiece, again came up trumps. This time he played the role of provider, shimmying his way to the byline before standing the ball up for Thiago to head in from close range.
If that was typical tiki-taka from Spain, the Azzurrini's equaliser came in more direct fashion. Immobile brought down Matteo Bianchetti's long pass with one exquisite touch before dinking the ball over David de Gea – bang went Spain's tournament clean sheet.
Francesco Bardi soon got down swiftly to deny Morata and Koke, thus keeping his team level. De Gea, making his 27th appearance to equal Santi Denia as Spain's most-capped U21 international, was in action himself before the half-hour. Alessandro Florenzi raced on to Borini's pass, bamboozled Marc Bartra and volleyed goalwards – De Gea was well placed.
It proved a turning point for Spain, who restored their advantage when Thiago wriggled free, took Koke's ball down on his chest and squeezed a shot through Bardi's legs. The Italian did not get quite so close to preventing La Rojita's third, Thiago slotting past him from the spot after Giulio Donati felled Tello.
The FC Barcelona midfielder so nearly made it four after the interval but his low effort was thwarted by Bardi. De Gea should also have been required not long after, Lorenzo Insigne and Florenzi both snatching at half-chances. Isco soon followed suit at the other end, putting his first-time finish narrowly wide following a lightning-fast counterattack from Cristian Tello.
Though Tello's pace was now proving a frequent thorn in Italy's side, it was the man behind him who teed up Spain's fourth, Martín Montoya pulled down by Vasco Regini after racing forward from right-back; Isco made no mistake.
Despite the early scare it seemed that, finally, Lopetegui's assertion that "the final is in our hands" had come to fruition. Though Borini prompted brief cause for alarm with a fine finish, Lopetegui, mastermind of Spain's U19 triumph last summer, could join a record crowd at Teddy Stadium in watching his team lift Spain's fourth U21 title in consummate fashion.
Here is something you won't hear very often - Israel beat England in Football. Against all odds
, the David and Goliath match-up turned in Israel's favor in the last minutes of the game with a goal by Ofir Krieff to put Israel up 1-0.
There was a sense of pure delight among the Israel players after they finished their home UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals with a 1-0 victory against England, even if they bowed out at the group stage.
"I wanted to run over to him but afterwards I saw nothing because everybody was all over me"
Ofir Krieff talks about coach Guy Luzon
Goalscorer Ofir Krieff, playing in front of his home-town Jerusalem crowd, dedicated the win to coach Guy Luzon
while Nir Biton explained what an honor it was to captain this side as he summed up the three years of preparation ahead of the tournament.Ofir Krieff, Israel midfielder
To score in the capital city, in my home town, in front of my home fans, is a fantastic feeling. We did a really good job. The credit goes to the team and not to me even though I scored. It's all thanks to the great work of the staff and the players.
I think that we had a really good tournament overall. To win four points against these kind of teams is a big achievement. We had some criticism and it wasn't always right. This team has a lot of potential and we proved it today against England which is nothing to take for granted.
When I scored I just thought that we had finally got the win after this hard work. The credit goes to Guy [Luzon]. It was highly important to finish with a good taste because of him and I'm happy that we gave him this goodbye present. “I wanted to run over to him but afterwards I saw nothing because everybody was all over me”.
What do I take from this tournament? Great guys, and we had three years of preparation which was insane. I will take all of these forward with me in my life. I played with talented players here.Boris Kleyman, Israel goalkeeper
I'm used to the fact that goalkeepers are always being criticized. It doesn't matter how good you are, you will concede in the end. I know what I'm capable of and people that see me know me for the good and the bad. I will keep going my way and believe in myself.
I have done a lot of hard preparation over the year. I didn't play too much for Hapoel Tel-Aviv so it was mainly preparation for me. I don't think we started as well as we could have done but things were fixed in the end. We conceded in the 92nd minute against Norway and we broke down against Italy.
It's hard to describe the fans in one word. We are so happy to finish with a win, especially so that Guy will go in his new direction feeling good.Nir Biton, Israel midfielder
It started with great excitement and it got better because we played better even though we got a bad result. In the closing match we gave it our all and we played great. It's a great result and we are highly satisfied.
“I can't believe only a week has passed. We prepared for this tournament for the last three years and it went by in a minute”. I enjoyed this tournament so much and I think this is the biggest experience of my life. I realized before the tournament how much of an honor it is to be captain of this team. It's not every day that an Israeli player gets the chance to lead his team at an U21 EURO. This is pride in a way I can't describe.