With the first round of fixtures completed, Sam Thompson of TTTFootball gives us the rundown of what has happened so far at the 2013 Under 21 European Championships in Israel.
England U21s 0 Italy U21s 1
England manager Stuart Pearce was without the suspended Thomas Ince and Danny Rose for their opening group match against a talented Italian side. Wilfired Zaha has been built up as England’s star player at this tournament but both he and Henri Lansbury started on the bench as a precautionary measure after feeling ‘sight niggles’.
Jason Lowe was chosen to partner Jordan Henderson in midfield but neither player coped with the hugely impressive PSG midfielder Marco Verratti, who pulled the strings superbly for Italy with Luca Marrone patrolling further up the pitch. Verratti dictated the tempo excellently from his familiar deep-lying position in central midfield and managed to make 120 passes with 87% passing accuracy – despite England having an extra body in the centre of midfield.
Just as impressive was left midfielder Lorenzo Insigne who caused Nathaniel Clyne all sorts of problems when he drifted inside from the left wing. The speed and directness of the Italian made him incredibly difficult to mark and he found himself in a goal scoring position on several occasions.
Italy’s problem however was a lack of a genuine goal threat from their two strikers. Ciro Immobile often came short towards the play whilst his strike partner, Liverpool’s Fabio Borini, preffered to stay higher up and stretch the play by targeting the channel between England’s left back Jack Robinson, who bizarrely wore the number nine shirt, and centre back Craig Dawson, who struggled for pace.
It was Dawson who first found the net but his effort from an England corner was disallowed in bizarre fashion and throughout the 90 minutes England rarely threatened the Italian back four. The only players that really stood out were the hard working Connor Wickham and young winger Nathan Redmond, making his first start at under 21 level, who looked lively on a few occasions when he received the ball in the attacking third.
Italy will feel hard done by for not getting a penalty in the first half and there were shouts for another in the second half but referee Antony Gautier ruled that Clyne’s tackle first started outside of the area. Star player Insigne stood over the free kick and guided it superbly into the goal with just over 10 minutes remaining, to seal a comfortable Italian victory.
Man of the Match: Lorenzo Insigne – looked dangerous every time he had the ball at his feet and England didn’t know how to deal with his pacey runs into central areas.
Israel U21s 2 Norway U21s 2
The earlier match in Group B finished level after Israel twice took the lead but were pegged back by Norway. The hosts opened the scoring after Nir Biton converted from the penalty spot following a clumsy tackle. Norway had made the brighter start to the match however and equalised eight minutes later through lone striker Marcus Pedersen.
Just before half time Norway’s left back Vegar Hedenstad was sent off for fouling Mohammed Kalebat after he ran in on goal, but Norway still saw more possession than their opponents in the second half. Substitute Ofir Kriaf on 71 minutes saw his shot deflected off a Norway shirt but fall kindly into the path of Alon Turgeman who volleyed excellently to restore Israel’s lead.
However, with seconds remaining Norway found a deserved equaliser in dramatic fashion after Harmeet Singh scored with a wonder strike from the edge of the box.
Man of the Match: Marcus Pedersen – led the line well by himself and took his goal excellently after receiving the ball on the edge of the area and turning his man.
Netherlands U21s 3 Germany U21s 2
This was without doubt the best game of the tournament so far as a result of the slick, fluid football on show and the number of highly technical midfield players that enjoyed every minute of playing on a good surface. The Dutch had the better of the first half and went two goals up before Germany pegged them back to 2-2, only to concede a late winner.
The Netherlands played probably the best football of the tournament so far, in the first half. Their play was full of movement, adventurous passing and great skill and the star man was Adam Maher playing in the hole. It was Maher who deservedly gave his side the lead on 24 minutes but his all round game was superb tonight, and he performed his role of linking defence and attack superbly.
Another star man for the Dutch in the first half was Kevin Strootman, the captain, who along with midfield partner Marco van Ginkel, marked Germany’s key player, Lewis Holtby, out of the game following the Tottenham midfielder wherever he went.
In attack, the dribbling of Ola John on the left wing was also impressive for the Dutch, as was the movement of lone striker Luuk De Jong who managed to occupy both of Germany’s centre backs and drag them into all sorts of uncomfortable positions. Georginio Wijnaldum managed to double the Netherlands’ lead on 38 minutes thanks to a goalkeeping error from Bernd Leno.
Germany were a revived side after the break though and this allowed Holtby to thrive. He started to find spaces in the second half that hadn’t been there in the first and the German’s looked far more composed on the ball, helped no doubt after Sebastian Rudy scored an early penalty in the second half.
It was Germany’s best player Holtby who pulled his side level on 81 minutes after making space for himself on the edge of the box to release a low drive, but the scoring wasn’t over as substitute Leroy Fer headed in a 90th minute corner to give the Netherlands all three points. It was a thrilling end to a great game of youth football.
Man of the Match: – Adam Maher – Everything good the Dutch did, Maher was often involved, and his vision and passing ability stood out despite sharing the pitch with other equally creative players.
Spain U21s 1 Russia U21s 0
This was a typically Spanish performance from Julen Lopetegui’s under 21 side. His players kept the ball superbly, making 802 passes in total compared to Russia’s 224. The likes of Thiago Alcantara and Asier Illarramendi kept the ball well enough but their passing wasn’t as urgent or forward thinking as it could have been.
Credit should go to Russia though who remained very organised and compact in a 4-1-4-1 formation. It was because of how narrow the Russian’s played that Spain’s creative talents were forced into wide areas to find any space and this often ended up with a frustrated long shot at goal, rather than an incisive through ball.
Isco was man marked in the first half by holding midfielder Ibrahim Tsallagov, who completed more tackles than any other player on the pitch, but in the second half the Malaga attacker moved to the left flank with Bilbao’s Iker Muniain now playing in the hole.
Isco revelled in his new position. He was no longer crowded out in a very compact central third of the pitch and could instead receive the ball and take on his marker before delivering a cross into the box. He managed to do so twice within the first five minutes of the second half but on both occasions Spain’s lone forward, Rodrigo, failed to find the target.
This was Spain’s biggest problem. For all their possession and skill, they struggled to get through a determined Russian defensive line and when they did, they were extremely wasteful in goal. Spain’s starting front four of Isco, Muniain, Cristian Tello and Rodrigo had 13 shots between them but not one effort was on target.
Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata was in/troduced in the second half and provided a dramatic late winner after heading in an excellent Thiago free kick on 82 minutes. Spain held on to take all three points but the talented German and Dutch sides will know that this young La Roja side are there for the taking.
Man of the Match: Isco – the Malaga man was Spain’s biggest threat going forward and the one player who looked like he was capable of getting in behind the Russia defence.
England U21s v Norway U21s Group A Saturday 8th June 5pm
Italy U21s v Israel U21s Group A Saturday 8th June 7.30pm
Netherlands U21s v Russia U21s Group B Sunday 9th June 5pm
Germany U21s v Spain U21s Group B Sunday 9th June 7.30pm
You can follow Sam on Twitter: @TTTFootball