With the best four sides of the tournament fighting for a place in the final, Sam Thompson of TTTFootball gives us the rundown of the two semi-finals of the 2013 European Under 21 Championships.
Spain Under 21s 3 Norway Under 21s 0
La Rojita booked their place in the final of the Under 21 European Championships after a very polished 3-0 victory against a Norway side that was made to look far more average than it had done in any of its group games.
Incredibly, Julen Lopetegui’s side saw 67% of the ball, with 92% of their passes finding a red shirt. With Spain dominating the play right from the kick-off, they were able to push both their full backs high up the pitch, leaving Asier Illarramendi to marshal in front of the centre backs. Both Thiago Alcantara and Koke in central midfield were able to stroll around the pitch, receiving the ball short or making runs into more advanced areas.
The best player in red was Isco however, whose performance on the night, and in the last few matches, makes him a real contender for player of the tournament. The Malaga attacker started on the left wing but played very narrowly, having been given a free role to roam around the pitch.
He operated from a mainly central position as a result, standing in between the lines of the Norway midfield and defence, and therefore occupied the attention of Norway’s deepest midfielder, Stefan Johansen.
As has been the case throughout this tournament, Norway defended in a 4-1-4-1 formation with their two wingers in line with the central midfielders and Johansen, as already mentioned, playing ten yards deeper, just in front of his back four. They were happy to sit very deep, applying minimal pressure when Spain had the ball in their own half, and on the odd occasion they did win the ball back, Norway played long, searching diagonals in behind the Spanish full backs.
Spain were knocking on the door throughout the first half. Lone striker Rodrigo saw his effort tipped onto the post after a Montoya rocket from distance was spilled into his path and Spain should have won a penalty after centre back Marc Bartra was bundled over, but instead he was booked for diving.
Illarramendi also had a long range shot blocked by Norway’s goalkeeper but from the resulting corner Spain scored after Norway, with just one minute until half-time, switched off and lost concentration.
Spain were a bit sloppy in the first ten minutes of the second half and Norway had their best spell of possession, but failed to convert any of the half-chances they created. Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata, with three goals in three games to his name so far, replaced Rodrigo on 58 minutes, and with Isco still relishing his free role, Spain settled themselves down again and retained the ball superbly.
With 15 minutes to go Norway replaced the surprisingly quiet Magnus Eikrem with Havard Nordtveit, changing their shape to a bolder 4-2-3-1 formation, but Johansen was forced to go off through injury just a few minutes later, and without their midfield general, Norway were punished twice late on
Isco made it 2-0 on 87 with a sublime piece of skill on the edge of the box, before poking the ball with the outside of his foot into the top corner. Morata then added a third on 93 minutes, and with Rodrigo, despite finally scoring, again failing to impress, Morata must surely be expecting to start the final.
Man of the Match: Isco – The stats say it all, he had; four shots (two on target), one goal, seven key passes, 87 touches, three completed dribbles, 98% passing accuracy and 100% accuracy from his six long balls.
Italy Under 21s 1 Netherlands Under 21s 0
The Netherlands dominated the first half but failed to capitalise on the chances they created. Italy regrouped at half-time and looked noticably more organised after the break, before nicking a late goal with just over 10 minutes remaining.
The Dutch made eleven changes in their final group game against Spain, but reverted back to the starting XI that has seen them record victories over both Germany and Russia in their first two matches.
Kevin Strootman and Marco Van Ginkel sat in midfield, with Adam Maher higher up the pitch. Ola John played from the left wing, with Georgino Wijnaldum on the right and Luuk De Jong the lone striker. The Netherlands were patient with their build up play and on several occasions in the first half they should have taken the lead – but ultimately the closest they came in the whole match was an Adam Maher free-kick on five minutes which bounced off the post.
Winning the midfield battle was always going to be key to winning this match and the Dutch dominated the first half largely because of how well they restricted Italy’s key player, Marco Verratti.
Maher occupuied Verratti by constantly looking to run in behind him when the Netherlands had the ball, forcing the PSG midfielder to use up a lot of energy by following his runs. Then, when Italy won the ball back, the roles reversed with Maher sticking very tight to Verratti, giving him no space to play and forcing Italy to play their first pass either wide or long.
Van Ginkel did a good job of closing down Verratti’s midfield partner, Fausto Rossi, and with the Italian’s playing a rigid 4-4-2, it meant that Strootman, at the base of the Dutch midfield always had space to play in.
Strootman was the games dictator in the first half and looked to spread the play wide to the Dutch wingers both of whom, as they have done throughout this tournament, played very high up and close to the touchline.
John failed to get the better of Italy’s right back Giulio Donati but Wijnaldum on the Dutch right had far more success, especially when he cut inside onto his left foot and had the option of playing in right back Ricardo van Rhijn on the overlap.
Italy were holding on as half-time approached but after the break they were far more organised and compact. The Netherlands had to be more patient but this made the tempo of their play a lot slower and as a result sloppyness crept in – left back Daley Blind was particularly poor on the ball.
Against the run of play, with 12 minutes remaining, Italy scored through Fabio Borini after the Liverpool striker found space in the 18 yard box, turned and shot, after beating substitute centre back Mike van der Hoorn to the ball. From then on Italy sat deep and their gritty performance was rewarded with a place in the final against Spain on Tuesday, where a similar type of performance will be required if they are to lift the trophy.
Man of the Match: Giulio Donati – Italy’s right back has been one of the most consistent defenders in Israel and playing against one of the Netherlands’ best attackers in Ola John, he did a superb job of keeping the Benfica winger quiet.
You can follow Sam on Twitter: @TTTFootball