Nobody sets out to stack the deck in an under-21 tournament. It just sort of happens.
A country’s youth develops swiftly and abundantly, before eventually outfitting their given domestic league’s best clubs, and the next thing you know, the nation’s U21 team sheet starts to resemble a World Cup finals squad list. Spain didn’t try to put together one of the scariest international youth sides we’ve ever seen, but that’s what it has done.
Marco Asensio’s hat-trick against Macedonia last Saturday wasn’t required to hammer home Spain’s colossal U21 European Championship promise, yet there it was, packaged as exquisitely and spectacularly as any three-goal showing could be. Three days after that 5-0 drubbing, a counterattacking Roja unit revealed itself versus a more-than-game Portugal side, resulting in a 3-1 win.
It took only those two matches for Albert Celades’ team to punch their spot in the semifinals of the tournament. Fielding a team with 11 changes, Spain finished its group stage on Friday with a professional 1-0 dispatching of Serbia.
But while Asensio might be Sinatra on the marquee of this continental showcase, each of The Pack behind him has their own mic, not to mention the pipes to turn heads all by themselves.
Saul Niguez supplies a secure midfield presence earned from his Atletico Madrid day job, where he spends his weekdays scoring wundergoals that send his club to Champions League finals (his tally from Tuesday — eerily similar in execution — wasn’t bad either). There’s Hector Bellerin, one of the best right-backs in England, as well as the object of desire in a day-to-day €50 million-plus transfer kerfuffle. And how about captain Gerard Deulofeu, who not only owns La Roja’s all-time U21 scoring record, but has also skinned many a fullback in each of Spain, England and Italy’s top-flights?
And that barely scratches the surface.
Another goal scorer from Tuesday, Sandro Ramirez, might be turning into the next David Villa right before our eyes. Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who now possesses the keys to Athletic Bilbao’s sticks, is Spain’s most surefire netminder since David De Gea. First-choice center-halves Jorge Mere and Jesus Vallejo have been long-decreed as future Roja mainstays on defense.
Left-backs Jose Luis Gaya and Jonny, starters at Valencia and Celta Vigo, respectively, are both taking turns landing blows as they push to be Spain’s left-sided defenseman of tomorrow. Deep-lying midfielder Marcos Llorente, fresh off a superb season with Alaves, continues to make Madridistas everywhere wonder if maybe Casemiro’s place in Zidane’s starting 11 isn’t as ironclad as it seems.
Absurd talents like Carlos Soler and Borja Mayoral have only even seen any pitch-time because of Spain’s early semifinal qualification, while seasoned players like Iñaki Williams, Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino have mostly been relegated to substitute roles because of the logjam of quality ahead of them. Hell, studs like Pablo Fornals, Victor Camarasa and Santi Mina couldn’t even make the squad.
It’s also worth mentioning Athletic’s Yeray Alvarez, who would likely be starting in central defense were he not forced to depart the competition after his testicular cancer unexpectedly returned.
Among the 11 players who Spain started against Macedonia, more than 700 top-flight club appearances are accounted for, by far the highest number for any team in the tourney. Seven of the 23 selected for the final Euros squad have already featured for Spain’s senior side, most of them multiple times. If it weren’t for the reality that a large number of these players have only unlocked a fraction of their potential, it’d be borderline obscene to suggest they were inexperienced at all.
To be clear, international knockout tournaments are so topsy-turvy that even Spain’s prospects of winning this particular European title is smaller than one would think looking at the headshots.
Although La Roja managed to nab the trophy with similarly stunning groups in both 2011 and 2013, team matchups in these circumstances tend to be unpredictable mazes. Often a single in-form talent will take over the excursion and account for unforeseen results; think Andre Arshavin in Euro 2008 or James Rodriguez in World Cup 2014. Of course, maybe Asensio is doing exactly that as we speak, and we’ve just yet to etch it in stone.
The nature of the scenario makes La Roja’s task about as monumental as its burden to be great is. But for budding superstars, those tasks and burdens grow by the day.
On the international football stage, this is merely Step 1. So far, they’re acing the test.