No football in the summer, you say? The last two weeks have seen Denmark host the 2011 European Under-21 Championships. Alistair Hendrie runs the rule over those who could be showboating on an ever bigger stage very soon.
Forget the bitching and tedium over Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere - there was a wealth of excitement within this year’s European Under-21s Championships in Denmark. Iceland stunned a lax Danish side 3-1 before heartbreak and elimination on the basis of other results. Belarus were two minutes away from beating Spain and reaching the final, and England of course made it hard for themselves. Stuart Pearce’s men bored the Czechs into submission before Danny Welbeck’s late goal. As luck would have it, the Three Lions then conceded two late goals either side of 90 minutes – bear in mind the Czechs only required a draw.
But there was one team who did turn up. Spain were of course the overwhelming favourites before the tournament started – the world heavyweights expected to flex their muscle. On their way to a 2-0 victory in the final over a disappointing Swiss side who promised so much, the Spaniards positively sparkled and played champagne football with a host of youngsters from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. As we reflect on two weeks of football with some exciting unknown talents, or rather, twiddle our thumbs and wait for the Copa America, here is a pretty handy XI made up of starlets who made the tournament.
Yann Sommer (Goalkeeper, 22, Switzerland & FC Basel)
Before Spain’s Ander Herrera nodded home in the final, Sommer was unbeaten for an astonishing 431 minutes. Indeed, the likes of Jonathan Rossini and co were formidable at the back for an attractive Swiss side, but Sommer was pivotal and his heroics in Switzerland’s 1-0 struggle past Denmark were particularly eye-catching. A fearless penalty box patroller, Sommer’s decision making was a huge asset and set his defenders’ minds at rest throughout the tournament. He’s not bad at club level either. He featured heavily in FC Basel’s run to last season’s Swiss Cup quarter-finals. His future at FCB looks rosier since previous first choice keeper Franco Costanzo was released this summer.
Didac Vila (Left-Back, 22, Spain & AC Milan)
Bearing in mind his father was a successful athlete, Didac’s stamina and aptitude for hurrying down the flanks comes as no surprise. Part of a Spanish defence which conceded just twice in Denmark, his positioning and range of passing was unblemished. It was he who provided the catalyst for Ander Herrera’s opener in the final against Switzerland. Didac showed grace, poise and vision to look up early and gently dink a ball to his onrushing teammate, who dully obliged and nodded down into the net. A January signing for Serie A champions AC Milan, the 22-year-old will spend next season on loan at Espanyol, back where Milan acquired his services from.
Alberto Botia (Centre-Back, 22, Spain & AC Milan)
Just like his fellow Barcelona academy graduate Gerard Pique, Botia is a defender who refuses to give change but can also play a bit. His Spanish side boasted an average of 63% possession in Denmark –Didac and Botia being key to their ball retention and playing from the back. Since moving to pastures new at Sporting Gijon, Botia has been an ever-present in the Rojiblancos side that finished La Liga in 10th last season. He did however cause quite a stir after being sent off due to an injury-time lunge on Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in November.
Yegor Filipenko (Centre-Back, 23, Belarus & Spartak Moscow)
It’s fair to say it’s been a whirlwind two weeks for Filipenko – he helped his country create history and his form has lead to strong rumours that he will soon become a key member of Spartak Moscow’s defence, having spent the last three seasons pulled to pillar and post on loan spells. The lanky defender scored the only goal in the 3rd place play-off against Czech Republic. In doing so, he cemented Belarus’ first ever appearance at the Olympics football tournament. Belarus were expected to be the whipping boys of Group A, but in their brave ascent to the semi-finals, Filipenko excelled without a shred of nerves. His headers, blocks, and last-gasp determination meant the unfancied side from Eastern Europe held steady in the face of adversity.
Philippe Koch (Right-Back, 20, Switzerland & FC Zurich)
One of a string of young, attacking prodigies at Switzerland’s disposal, Koch is a buccaneering, cantering full-back who can whip in a wicked cross. He was an ever present in Pierluigi Tami’s side, playing all 480 minutes in Denmark. At 20, Koch is still a rough gem, but has bags of experience which clearly helped his side in an intense, demanding tournament. He has been a regular member of FC Zurich’s first team for the past two seasons and has appeared in the Champions League. He scored on his debut for the under-21s against Estonia in October 2009, aged just 19-years and six-months-old.
Javi Martinez (Defensive Midfielder, 22, Spain & Athletic Bilbao)
With over 200 career appearances at 22-years-old, as well as a call-up to Spain’s World Cup-winning squad, Javi Martinez captained his Spanish youngsters to glory and led by example. By way of his Spanish DNA, he holds all the tricks, ability and persistent care of the ball you would expect. But it’s his unyielding battling in the centre of midfield that appeals most about his game. Think Patrick Vieira with more pace, skill and a lot more swagger. Indeed, Javi Martinez loves the rough and tumble and much as he loves having the ball at his feet. He committed 14 fouls, more than any player at the tournament, but was fouled 22 times, making him the second most fouled player in Denmark.
Borek Dockal (Central Midfielder, 22, Czech Republic & Slovan Liberec)
Dockal is a classy, graceful midfielder with a little bit of everything. His first against Ukraine was a poked half volley after a quick-thinking one-two, the second a calm side-foot into the bottom corner. In the ground stages especially, the playmaker showed the world what he can do. A dead-ball specialist, Dockal made the Czechs tick before their whimpering exit at the hands of Switzerland in the semi-finals. It was his general nous and knowledge of his teammates’ whereabouts that made his side look so fearsome early on. Supposedly a target for many English clubs, Dockal almost joined Middlesbrough in 2010.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Central Midfielder, 19, Switzerland & FC Basel)
As if his long-range piledriver against England wasn’t enough to grab the attention, Shaqiri’s performances in Denmark certainly rubber-stamped his prodigious talents. He scored a breathtaking solo effort to provide a sucker punch against the hosts, and always showed an aptitude for goals. He had more shots than any other player in the tournament – 19. The FC Basel man may not be short on confidence, but at 5 foot 7, he gives up many inches to his opponents. Nonetheless, his compact, stocky build and huge thighs aid him in his Maradona-esque slalom runs. He impressed in his forward role for the Swiss, but the attacking triumvirate of Spain was just too good to impose on in this line-up.
Juan Mata (Left Attacking Midfield, 23, Spain & Valencia)
The talismanic Juan Mata was the heartbeat of the Spanish title-winning side. Two goals and two assists speak volumes, whereas his understanding of teammates seemed to be interwoven into his make-up. Juan Mata quite simply made Spain look like a side that plays together week-in, week-out. The weight and delay of his through ball for Adrian Lopez’s second against the Czechs was gorgeous. Another member of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad in South Africa last summer, the 23-year-old is reportedly on the cusp of a move to Barcelona, with English clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City also casting admiring glances his way.
Iker Muniain (Right Attacking Midfielder, 18, Spain & Athletic Bilbao)
This pugnacious, stubborn winger confirms a current trend in world football – small, tricky, quick midfielders. Muniain has followed on from the likes of countrymen David Silva and Cesc Fabergas, as well as Luka Modric, and can surely emulate the achievements of the trio. At just 5 foot 6 and with a beanpole build, Muniain looked like a boy amongst men in Denmark. But his dazzling quick footwork, pace and niggling determination made him a huge asset to the Spanish. There was is no lost cause for Muniain. Whenever near the by-line, there is always a chance he can retain possession or produce a cross. His fearless rise is striking considering he had never played for the under 21s before Euro 2011.
Adrian Lopez (Centre-Forward, 23, Spain & Deportivo La Coruna)
After the dust from his club side Deportivo La Coruna’s relegation had barely settled, Adrian Lopez announced himself as one of Spain’s most promising, upcoming marksmen with five goals in Denmark. The top scorer of the tournament, he acted as a right-place, right-time striker with the same qualities as Spanish legend Raul. Like all great poachers, finishing is how he claims his plaudits. His second against Czech Republic was quite something. With three defenders circling him, the Depor man shifted his balance, got the ball out of his feet, and slotted home from 10 yards out without a hint of an upwards glance – he just knew where the goal was.
Substitutes: Anderson (Denmark), Vacka (Czech Republic), Dragun (Bulgaria), Thiago (Spain), Mehmedi (Switzerland)
Alistair is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can be found on Twitter @AllyH84.