KEIR RADNEDGE reports from JERUSALEM
—- Skipper Thiago Alcantara thundered a first-half hat-trick as classy holders Spain put record winners Italy to the sword by 4-2 in the concluding, climactic clash in the 2013 European Under-21 Championship here in the Teddy Stadium on UEFA’s south-eastern fringe.
The widely-coveted Barcelona midfielder struck in the sixth, 31st and 38th minutes with his third coming from a penalty. Another penalty was converted in the second half by Isco. Ciro Immobile, in the first half, and Fabio Borini in the second, struck consolations for the overwhelmingly outplayed Italians.
A tournament-best attendance of 29,320 saw the final though Israel’s excellent hosting was marred by three pitch invasions in the closing stages of the second half.
Spain’s success completed a clean sweep of youth titles and added further lustre to the football of a nation who can boast World Cup success in 2010 and senior European Championship glory in 2008 and 2012.
Coach Julen Lopetegui’s men were much the quicker into top gear. In the sixth minute Real Madrid centre-forward Alvaro Morata outpaced Italy on the left, drew keeper Francesco Bardi to the near post then pulled back a perfect short cross for Alcantara to head in.
Any spies – Manchester United have been linked with the Barcelona youngster – would have been impressed by his reading of the move, his pace in striding forward and the decision of his header.
Italy, up to this point, had done nothing to threaten David De Gea in the Spain. But that all changed within minutes when a right-wing break provided Immobile with space and split-second to lift his angled shot over the keeper and inside his left-hand post. It was the first goal Spain had conceded in the finals.
Spain responded with all the hurt pride of youth. The reflexes of Bardi twice foiled Murata, at close range, and then the Inter keeper just about smothered an imaginative backheel from Koke.
Classically, of course, this is when Italy are at their most dangerous with the opposition increasingly extended in attack. Right on cue they snapped back at speed. This time De Gea knew little about how his right foot managed to deflect a low drive from right wing Alessandro Florenzi over the bar.
Florenzi made his Roma debut two years ago as a substitute for veteran icon Francesco Totti and, judging from the skill displayed in manufacturing the opening, might one day prove a permanent successor.
The miss, however, threatened to prove critical. Back at the other end centre-back Luca Caldirola misjudged Koke’s long cross from the left. Alcantara took the ball on his chest and, though Bardi put a hand to the ball, the sheer power of the shot was enough to carry it over the line and Spain back into the lead.
That was in the 31st minute. Six minutes later outpaced rightback Giulio Donati brought down left-winger Cristian Tello to provide Alcantara with his hat-trick completion from the penalty spot. No surprise that Alcantara was later voted man of the match.
Spain were playing with a maturity and mobility which made a hitherto well-organised and skilled Italian team look almost clumsy. Malaga winger Isco inflicted a further dent in Italy’s pride when he struck home a 63rd-minute penalty after raiding rightback Martin Montoya had been tripped by Vasco Regini.
Fabio Borini pulled one back for Italy in the 79th minute but nothing could spoil Spanish celebrations at the final whistle.
Italy: Bardi – Donati, Bianchetti, Caldirola, Regini – Florenzi (Saponara 58), Rossi, Verratti (Crimi 76), Insigne – Borini, Immobile (Gabbiadini 58). Coach: Mangia.
Subs not used: Leali, Colombi, Biraghi, Capuano, Marrone, Destro, Sansone, Bertolacci, Paloschi.
Spain: De Gea – Montoya, Bartra,Martinez,Moreno- Koke (Camacho 86), Illarramendi, Thiago Alcantara – Isco, Morata (Rodrigo 80), Tello (Muniain 70). Coach: Lopetegui.
Subs not used: Marino, Joel, Nacho, Marc Muniesa, Alvaro, Sarabia, Carvajal, Alvaro Vazquez.
Referee: Matej Jug (Slovenia). Attendance: 29,320.