UEFA U21: Insigne steals show; Netherlands, Germany playmakers impress

Posted by Chris Atkins

VI Images/Getty ImagesAt 22, Italy international Lorenzo Insigne is one of the more experienced players in the tournament, having notched five goals and nine assists with Napoli this season.

Name: Lorenzo Insigne
Age: 22
Club: Napoli
Position: Forward
Nationality: Italian

Wednesday night's encounter between England and Italy would have made unpleasant viewing for fans of the Three Lions, despite only falling to a narrow 1-0 defeat against a good Italian side. England coach Stuart Pearce described the showing as "awful," with his side outplayed throughout. In truth, had it not been for a one of the tournament's best organised defences, it could have been much worse for his side.

Italy, though, should be credited. They will be favourites to top Group A, and built play impressively from the back throughout. PSG playmaker Marco Verratti was as assured as ever at the base of the midfield, while Inter Milan centre-backs Luca Caldirola and Matteo Bianchetti were excellent throughout. The real star of the show, however, was Napoli left winger Lorenzo Insigne.

At 22, Insigne is one of the more experienced players in the tournament but is also among the most naturally talented. Having been named Serie B player of the year with Pescara in 2011-12, he returned to Napoli this season and impressed when given opportunities. Despite 22 of his total 42 appearances coming from the substitutes bench, he still was able to finish his club campaign with five goals and nine assists to his name.

Insigne was rejected by Inter Milan as a youngster due to his height, measuring just 5'4" tall. However, as with so many top players these days, that has proved to be no disadvantage, with his pace and low centre of gravity making him a nightmare to defend. For England right-back Nathaniel Clyne, with his wealth of senior experience, it was a difficult evening throughout. Insigne's ability to go inside onto his preferred right-foot, or simply use his pace and beat Clyne down the flank, caused the Southampton man problems throughout. In the end, though, it was a curled 20-yard free-kick into the corner that won his side the encounter.

Thus far, despite a lack of regular first-team starts, there has been little linking Insigne with a move away from Napoli. With manager Walter Mazzarri departing, and Spaniard Rafael Benitez coming into the club, there is every chance his luck will change next season. Should he continue his development, with both club and country, there is no doubt that some of the biggest names in European football will begin to circle.

For England, it should be added, young Birmingham winger Nathan Redmond was the sole threat throughout. The 19-year-old was making his first appearance for Pearce's side, having been a late addition to the squad, and showed close control that many of his teammates sadly lacked. His runs forward off the right-flank led to a couple of good shooting opportunities, and Pearce will be keen to see his talents link up with the returning Wilfried Zaha and Thomas Ince in games to come.

Hosts fortunate as referee influences opener

In the tournament's opening match, also in Group A, a 10-man Norway side battled back in the final minutes to earn a 2-2 draw against hosts Israel. Despite missing four players who are still on senior international duty, the Norwegians were much the better team up until halftime but would go in at the break with the score at 1-1 following the award of a controversial penalty. A red card to left-back Vegar Eggen Hedenstad late in the half for a last-man foul would then change the game.

Israel took advantage of their man advantage to make the match more even after the break and finally took the lead once Norway began to tire thanks to a sweetly struck finish from substitute Alon Turgemon. However, the Scandinavians, who impressed with their fine midfield interplay, struck late through a 20-yard drive from Harmeet Singh to earn a valuable point. Once at full strength, Norway showed enough to suggest that they can be a real force in the competition.

The performance of substitute Israeli midfielder Ofir Kriaf, though, deserves to be noted, with the Beitar Jerusalem man adding real quality to what had been an uninspired side early on. Manchester City linked colleague Nir Biton came into the tournament with an outstanding reputation, but it was the influence of Kriaf which gave Israel a midfield foothold. A neat turn and run would later set up his side's second goal, which had appeared decisive at the time. It would be a surprise were he not chosen to start by head coach Guy Luzon for Saturday's clash with Italy.

Set piece helps familiar looking Spain to win

Spain came through a difficult opener against Russia in Group B, thanks to a 1-0 win secured by a late headed goal from Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata. Even had they not scored, it was a performance of great composure from the Spanish side. Their famed style of high possession and pressing has transcended to all age levels, and this Under-21 side is no different.

Having opted to pick a more experienced squad than many of their rivals, Spain boasted many star names in their ranks. Barcelona's Thiago and Malaga's Isco were the men expected to break down the stubborn Russian defence, but it did not quite work out for either player. Instead, it was Real Sociedad's Asier Illarramendi who came to the fore, continuing his fine form from club level.

A product of the Sociedad academy, the comparisons with Xabi Alonso are natural, and his fine performances will do little to quash the growing reputation surrounding his name. A deep-lying playmaker, he was the one offering drive from midfield early on as Thiago and Isco struggled to break down the Russian defensive line. According to WhoScored statistics, Illarramendi made 131 touches (the most of any player), with a passing accuracy of 93 percent. His contribution in breaking up rare Russian attacks (3 interceptions, 2 tackles) should also not be overlooked.

Fer settles clash of giants as No. 10s take centre stage

Dutch substitute Leroy Fer scored a late headed goal to give Netherlands a 3-2 victory over traditional rivals in the final game of Matchday 1—a fixture which lived up to the old cliche of a game of two halves. The Netherlands were outstanding in the early stages, retaining possession well as a dynamic attacking unit caused Germany huge problems.

- Highlights: Netherlands 3-2 Germany

While both goals that would give the Jong Oranje a two-goal lead at halftime could be attributed to mistakes from Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno, the quality of Netherlands attacking play should not be understated. The first goal came courtesy of AZ attacking midfielder Adam Maher -- the outstanding player on the pitch in the first-half.

Getty ImagesAdam Maher emerged as the player of the first half for the Dutch, who held off rival Germany.

Following a neat interchange in the corner, Maher cut in and lashed a swerving right-foot shot past keeper Leno. Moments later, he almost slipped striker Luuk de Jong in to add a second, but it would not take long for the goal to come thanks to a strong run and finish from PSV midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.

Germany, though, came out rejuvenated after halftime, and had pulled a goal back within minutes as goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet brought down Tottenham's Lewis Holtby following sloppy play from defender Stefan de vrij. Central midfielder Sebastian Rudy stepped up to convert from the spot. Germany now had their opponents panicking as their sudden increase in tempo panicked the Oranje. Holtby, who would score a fine equaliser, was at the heart of the recovery.

While Maher's influence faded, the Spurs attacking midfielder was now central to the game as he harried defenders and sought to bring forwards Pierre-Michel Lasogga and, particularly, substitute Kevin Volland into the game. With ten minutes to go, as Holtby picked up the ball on the left, ran infield and blasted a low shot past Zoet into the far corner, it appeared the game would only have one winner.

It would be two late substitutes that would decide the game heading into injury-time, though, as Memphis Depay's corner was powerfully headed home by Fer. It was not what Holtby and his side deserved for their efforts, but added a dramatic conclusion to a wonderful game.

For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter – @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can also be found at TheElastico.com.

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