KEIR RADNEDGE reports from JERUSALEM
—– Spain, it seems, can do not wrong. Not only are the seniors world and European champions but the next generation are favourites to see off Italy in the European Under-21 final here tonight.
Julen Lopetegui’s team have been favourites from the outset of the tournament to retain the title they claimed against Switzerland two years ago. Unusually at this ever-changing level, they have not only the talent – Isco, Tello, etc – but the experience.
No fewer than five of their squad survive from 2011: goalkeepers David De Gea and Diego Marino, defender Martin Montoya, midfielder Thiago Alcantara and forward Iker Muniain. Only 10 players have doubled up previously and never a Spaniard.
The most noted double winners of the European Under-21 title are the Italians Fabio Cannavaro and Christian Panucci. Cannavaro was a winner in 1994 und 1996 before graduating a decade later to captain the Azzurri to World Cup success.
The other double winners are England’s Danny Thomas (1982, 1984), Italians Dario Marcolin and Roberto Muzzi (1992, 1994) and Dutchmen Kenneth Vermeer, Arnold Kruiswijk, Daniel de Ridder, Ron Vlaar and Haris Medunjanin (2006, 2007).
If Spain do win then this continuity will be key. As former Spain goalkeeper Lopetegui said: “We feel this team play the same way as the one who win in 2011.”
Spain may be one of the most attractive teams on view but the finals themselves have been entertaining with 39 goals scored in 14 matches. That computes to the highest ratio (2.87 goals per match) in Euro youth, Euro and World Cup so far this century – with the exception of 2004 (3.25 goals per match).
Italy and Spain have shared many classic matches down the years at every level, going right back to the quarter-finals of the 1934 World Cup when it took a replay before the Azzurri edged forwards towards the first of their four triumphs.
In the 1990s Italy had the upper hand again, even in the European under-21s. In 1996 Spain were favourites as hosts against Italy but the visitors won a third title running courtesy of the character of players such as Francesco Totti, Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon.
It was an unlikely victory after Italy had to play the last 15 minutes of extra-time with only nine men but they still clung on for a 1-1 draw. Francesco Totti and Raul Gonzalez were the scorers.
In the penalty shootout Raul missed his decisive penalty, and Domenico Morfeo sealed the deal for the Italians making them the only team with three consecutive titles in European under-21 championship history.
Many of those Italian winners went on to become world champions in Germany in 2006. But two years later Spain were the shootout winners against Italy at the seniors’ European Championship in the quarter-finals in Austria and Switzerland. Then, of course, Spain thrashed Italy 4-0 in last year’s Euro final.
Whatever the result tonight, Italy will remain the under-21 kings. They have won five titles (in 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004). So far Spain boast three (1986, 1998, and 2011).
Hence tonight, unusually, it is Spain who will be playing catch-up.