After what has been an interesting competition in Israel, it was finally time for a new U21 European Champion to be crowned. It would be either defending champions Spain, or a very good Italian side. Like the senior Euros 12 months ago, Italy and Spain managed to beat everyone else and prove that they are the top two teams in European football. And just like the senior Euros, it turned out to be an exciting final. 6 great goals were scored between the two teams in Jerusalem, but in the end, there would only be one winner.
Devis Mangia and Julien Lopetegui both lined up serious squads as they both knew how important this match would be. Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara, Malaga’s Isco Alarcon, and Atletico Madrid’s Koke Resurreccion were part of the midfield in Lopetegui’s starting XI in an offensive 4-3-3 formation. Meanwhile, Mangia lined up, among others, AS Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi, Liverpool’s Fabio Borini, and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne in a 4-2-2 double 6 (4-2-2-2) formation. Both sides looked all set as they stood for their national anthems before Italy kicked-off the game.
Spain got their first corner after only 3 minutes, but it bore nothing major. 3 minutes after that, however, Alvaro Morata got a hold of the ball and crossed successfully to Thiago Alcantara, who was able to get away from defenders and head the ball into the net past young Francesco Bardi to make it 1-0. Spain’s lead didn’t last too long, however, as Ciro Immobile was able to equalize just 4 minutes later with the help of Hellas Verona’s Matteo Bianchetti. David De Gea’s run of clean sheets (from the competition’s group stages) came to an end when Immobile’s incredible piece of skill left him defeated. The 23-year-old Genoa center-forward brought down the ball from a Bianchetti cross and scored a beauty with his second touch. The game was then back to where it had started, with both sides level.
Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata had a chance to put his side back in front 6 minutes later, but Bardi managed to save. The young goalkeeper was called into action again not so long after that, when Koke almost scored past him after a Isco free-kick was blocked by the defensive wall. Fortunately for the Azzurini, Bardi managed to save again. Barcelona center-back Marc Bartra also had a chance soon after but sent the ball far over.
Italy also had some good chances in the first half with the best chance coming for Florenzi in the 25th minute. The 22-year-old midfielder sent a strong volley towards the net but David de Gea, proving just why he’s an English Champion with Manchester United, saved brilliantly. Francesco Bardi was finally beaten on the half-hour mark when the Spain captain scored his second of the night. Alcantara picked up a good diagonal ball from Koke, brought it down well, and shot. Bardi stretched to try and save but the shot was just too powerful. 2-1!
Thiago Alcantara, who had not managed to score in the tournament before this final, got a chance to complete his hat-trick shortly after he had scored his second when his side was awarded a penalty for a foul by US Grosseto’s Giulio Donati on Barcelona’s Chrtistian Tello inside the box. The 22-year-old midfielder made no mistakes and it was 3-1 to Spain! Despite having a secure 2-goal cushion nearing the end of the first half, Spain were still pushing to get a 4th goal to finish off Italy with a good chance for Alvaro Morata. Had it not been for their captain Luca Caldirola who blocked the shot, Italy would have had more problems going into half-time. Lorenzo Insigne tried to get Italy’s second before the half-time whistle was blown, but fired over.
The second half started the same way the first half had ended, with Spain, rather than Italy, looking to add to their tally. Francesco Bardi had a harder job than David De Gea for the opening minutes of the second half. Thiago Alcantara tried to hit a fourth one, forcing the Novara Calcio man to a tough save. Lorenzo Insigne, Alessandro Florenzi, and Fabio Borini threatened at the other end as well in that order, but all three missed their chances.
Devis Mangia then decided to make a double substitution, bringing on Bologna’s Manolo Gabbiadini and Empoli’s Riccardo Saponara on for goalscorer Ciro Immobile and Alessandro Florenzi respectively. However, Spain continued to threaten more. Italy finally started to believe it was over when their opponents scored a fourth goal. The young Spanish side were awarded a second penalty for a foul by Vasco Regini on Barcelona right-back Martin Montoya inside the box, for which the Empoli left-back was issued a yellow card. Isco stepped up to take the penalty and sent Francesco Bardi the wrong way with a good strike. Although 24 minutes still remained on the clock, it started looking like Spain would emerge winners with how they were playing. 4-1 to Spain!
Julen Lopetegui made his first substitution (Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Munian for Cristian Tello) with 19 minutes still to play. Devis Mangia responded by making his third substitution (Grosseto’s Marco Crimi for PSG’s Marco Verratti) 5 minutes later. Alvaro Morata had threatened 2 minutes earlier, but Francesco Bardi had managed to save yet again. Time was running out fast for the Azzurini. Substitute Manolo Gabbiadini had a good shot from 20 meters out, but David de Gea was able to escape as it went over the bar.
Italy were able to get a second goal 10 minutes from time thanks to a Fabio Borini beauty. Combining with teammate Lorenzo Insigne, Borini was able to get away from the Spain defenders and shoot powerfully into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Even de Gea couldn’t do too much to stop the powerful shot from the determined Liverpool man. Julen Lopetegui responded to this goal by making a second substitution (SL Benfica’s Rodrigo Machado for top-scorer Alvaro Morata) and then a third (Malaga’s Ignacio Camacho for Koke Resurreccion) 6 minutes later, after Vasco Regini had missed the target for Italy. Italy tried to get something out of the remaining minutes but Spain managed to hold on and clinch the Under-21 title for the fourth time in the history of the competition.
Alvaro Morata’s challenge for the competition’s Adidas U21 Golden Boot had been contested by fellow teammate Thiago Alcantara, who picked up the award at the end of the competition for his four goals in the competition. In second place were fellow teammates Thiago Alcantara and Isco Alarcon on three goals in six games. Spain, having conceded only 2 goals and scored 12 goals from the group stages of the competition, were more than worthy of being crowned UEFA European Under-21 Championship winners.
Written by Ange Marline