Name: Thiago Alcantara do Nascimento (Thiago)
Position: Attacking Midfield
The best players, they say, are those who come to the fore on the biggest occasions. To shine in the group stages of a major competition is difficult enough, but it becomes considerably more difficult when it comes to the final stages. It is at this point that the "clutch players", to borrow a phrase from American sport, come to the fore. Having been the Man of the Match in the final of the past two European Under-21 Championships, Barcelona starlet Thiago certainly falls into that category.
The La Masia-produced midfielder had already been generating headlines Europe-wide this summer, with ever increasing speculation that Thiago will be heading for pastures new in the coming weeks. Given the hype surrounding his future, then, his performance in Spain's 4-2 victory on Tuesday night was even more impressive. It took just 38 minutes of the encounter for Thiago, the son of 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho, to complete his hat-trick from the penalty spot, writing his name into the tournament's history books once more.
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For those that remember the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, the similarities with the performance of now Chelsea star Oscar will be clear. Both players saw team-mates steal the headlines in the competitions' early stages, before coming to the fore with hat-tricks in their respective finals. For the Brazil international, it was the moment that kick-started his rapid rise to the top of the game. Thiago, whose career at club level is yet to fully find top gear, will hope for a similar boost to his fortunes.
Matters now appear to be coming to a head with employers Barcelona, where the 22-year-old is said to be disappointed with his lack of regular starts this campaign. With the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta still going strong in the Blaugrana midfield, it remains unclear whether the situation will improve anytime soon. Catalan magazine "Sport" reported only on Tuesday morning that the club have been made aware of the player's intention to depart this summer, with two Premier League sides reported to have made official contact over his future. Barcelona would be loathed to lose his services before fully reaping the benefits, but with Thiago's release clause set at 18 million euros, they would be powerless to resist any such offer.
For any potential suitors that still needed convincing that 18 million euros is a more than reasonable price for his services, Tuesday's display would surely have been enough to tip the scales. Captaining his side, the Barcelona youngster led by example as he controlled the tempo of his side's attacking play. No Spanish player touched the ball more than Thiago, while a passing success rate of 94 percent says much for his precision and ball retention skills.* In defence, his industry in pressing the likes of Marco Verratti in the Italian midfield also helped consolidate his team's advantage in the centre of the park.
Naturally, though, it will be his goal-scoring contribution in claiming a "perfect hat trick" that will claim the headlines. A header opened the scoring after just six minutes, after fine work from Alvaro Morata on the left flank, before a fine chest down and finish with his left foot restored the Spanish advantage after half an hour. With his mark on the encounter already indelible, it was no surprise that, when the speed of winger Cristian Tello earned his side a penalty minutes later, Thiago stepped up to complete his hat-trick. With his place in history secure, he would pass on a second spot kick to colleague Isco in the second half -- allowing the Malaga player to complete a fine tournament of his own.
Clubs across Europe are currently busy searching out creative talent to take their sides to the next level, with both Thiago and Isco among the most sought after players around. Both two-footed, highly intelligent and technically excellent, the pair would doubtless improve any side -- should they choose to move on.
Moving away from transfer speculation for a moment, the future could not look brighter for Spain at present. La Roja have now secured back-to-back European titles at senior, Under-21 and Under-19 level, suggesting that the country's dominance at the top of the world game is far from coming to an end. The comprehensive dismantling of Barcelona at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League saw many hail the end of the tiki-taka era. At international level, though, it would appear that the Spanish style of playing still has some years of success ahead of it.
It remains to be seen whether Thiago will still be around to step into the Barcelona first-team once Xavi chooses to hang up his boots for good. Wherever he may end up plying his regular trade, though, he is almost certain to take on a major role at the centre of the Spain midfield. The arrival of Thiago as a major force at senior level has been long awaited, and has taken longer than many had expected. By the end of the summer, though, we may have a better idea of just where his almost certain rise to the top will take its next step.
Scout's Notebook Team of the Tournament: De Gea; Montoya, Caldirola, Strandberg, Moreno; Illarramendi, Thiago, Isco, Wijnaldum; Insigne, Morata.
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.
*: All statistics via WhoScored.com
Name: Thiago Alcantara do Nascimento (Thiago)