Spain trio torment Swiss
Central midfield trio Ander Herrera, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez were the stand-out performers in an impressive Spain performance as they clinched the UEFA Under 21 European Championship title on Saturday night.
Switzerland had not conceded a single goal going into the final, but Herrera and Thiago scored either side of half-time to finish off Switzerland 2-0 in Aarhus.
Tournament top scorer Adrian was very quiet and probably Spain's only poor player in the final, but Herrera and Thiago filled the goal-scoring gap and provided more than just goals. With Manolo el de bombo in the stands with his iconic drum, Herrera and Thiago mimicked Spanish football's most famous supporter on the pitch by orchestrating the rhythm of their team's play.
The pint-sized duo were in constant motion for 90 minutes, always providing options for their team-mates. With quick short passes, clever flicks and delightful long deliveries, Herrera and Thiago launched Spain's attacking moves.
Martinez was crucial in keeping Switzerland goalless and, in particular, subduing Xherdan Shaqiri, who had his quietest match of the tournament against Spain. Whenever possible, two or even three Spanish players swarmed around the FC Basel youngster.
Spain skipper Martinez was one of the players to mark Shaqiri most often. Although a couple of the tall defensive midfielder's tackles on Shaqiri resembled wrestling moves or rugby tackles, he was still the key to Spain gaining the upper hand in the midfield battle. Martinez assisted Alvaro Dominguez and Alberto Botia in central defence and provided the stability that allowed full-backs Didac Vila Rosello and Martin Montoya to attack.
The Athletic Bilbao youngster also showed his more silky side. Martinez took every opportunity to stride forwards with the ball at his feet, weaving between opponents and setting up attacks.
The Spaniards' extra class and relentless possession-based play wore down the normally tight Swiss unit. The first half in Aarhus was tight with few chances - both sides had three shots with just one on target - but it was the Spanish that got the crucial first goal, with Juan Mata the architect. The Valencia winger became more influential in the latter stages of the first half and four minutes from the break he broke open Switzerland's previously watertight back four.
Mata received the ball just ahead of the halfway line, turned and spotted Vila Rosello's run down the left. Mata's pass was placed just in front of the left back and Vila Rosello sent in a curling cross at full speed. Herrera timed his run perfectly and snuck in between Switzerland's two central defenders to head the ball past Swiss captain Yann Sommer.
That goal meant that Switzerland had to chase the game in the second half, which made it tough.
"We had to take more risks and we were prepared to do that but we suffered from physical problems," Swiss coach Pierluigi Tami explained after the game. "We were too tired to stand up to Spain."
Ten minutes before full-time, Thiago finished the Swiss off. After a Spanish substitution, the Barcelona youngster quickly restarted the match. Off one step, and from around 40 metres, the skilful midfielder caught Sommer off guard and shot over the Swiss goalkeeper's head and into the top corner.
It was a heartbreaking moment for Switzerland. In the five minutes leading up to Thiago's goal, the Swiss had two big chances to equalise. Twice in a matter of minutes, a Shaqiri in-swinging free kick had been headed just wide of the goal, but Thiago extinguished hope of a comeback.
"The second goal was an outstanding goal and it was the decisive goal of the match," Tami said. "We were close but our shots were a little bit off target and that was the difference."
Thiago was named man of the match after the final for the second time in the tournament.
"Thiago is the player that impressed me most," Tami added, "due to his technique and his efficiency. Plus he has a lively way of playing."
The period just before Thiago's goal was one of Switzerland's two better periods of the match. The other was the first half-hour when the Swiss kept the pressure on Spain, particularly in midfield, and tried to launch rapid counter attacks as soon as they got the ball.
In the 29th minute, Switzerland had their best chance. A long throw cleared a bunch of players and bounced in front of Shaqiri. The tiny No. 10 used his impressive strength to hold off his defender and shot on the turn with his unfavoured right boot. It was a great little move and, if the Swiss playmaker's powerful strike had been to either side of Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea, it would have been a goal. Instead, De Gea punched the shot away.
"The Swiss performed very well in the final," Spain's coach Luis Milla said after the match. "They had their opportunities, particularly with the shot from Shaqiri in the first half."
Admir Mehmedi, one of Switzerland's better players in Aarhus, spent most of the match trying to get his side going. The FC Zurich striker dropped deep on many occasions and tried to use his impressive dribbling skills to find space between Spain's defence and midfield. His efforts didn't lead to goals but the Swiss No. 11 believed his side wasn't disgraced.
"We were not all that bad and if you have look at the statistics of the game we were quite level," Mehmedi said, "but nevertheless we were unable to get our style of play going and, especially in the second half, Spain deserved to win."
Spain's triumph in Denmark was their third at European Under-21 level after titles in 1986 and 1998.