"We've got so much desire to win this trophy again,” Thiago Alcantara emphatically declared ahead of a new adventure for Spain’s Under-21s. The aim for Thiago and his teammates is clear – emulate the success of the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals in Denmark, and take the next step in their development towards La Seleccion.
2011 was a benchmark year as a squad featuring the likes of Javi Martinez, Juan Mata and Thiago himself went on to record victory in commanding style. Five of the players who were present in Denmark are here again in Israel, and rather than bemoan not being part of the full set up at the Confederations Cup or sulk that they’re losing their summer, the group is focused and determined.
Last time around Javi Martinez and Juan Mata had been to a World Cup but still wanted to feature with the U-21s, their attitude and leadership around the camp in 2011 filtering through to the more inexperienced players. It created a hunger and a desire amongst the players to succeed. Thiago was one of those listening in then, but he’s doing the talking now.
A mixed season with Barcelona where he perhaps would’ve liked more minutes, and a summer ahead expected to be full of transfer rumours, Thiago just wants to lead this team. If he did feel the pressure, then just a look over his shoulder would reassure him he’s in excellent company. David de Gea is a Premier League champion now, Koke has a Europa League medal, Inigo Martinez and Asier Illarramendi played a huge part as Real Sociedad went on to qualify for the Champions League and Isco has led his Malaga team in the Champions League this past season as well as domestically. Then there are the likes of Dani Carvajal, Iker Muniain, Rodrigo and Thiago’s teammates at Barca Martin Montoya and Marc Bartra. Despite being at U-21 level, the team could take on some senior sides and there is even an argument the side is better placed than the one in 2011.
Spain U-21’s record in qualifying for this tournament was formidable to say the least – P10 W9 D1 L0 F35 A3. Coach Julen Lopetegui has stressed one mistake here though, could be fatal: “It's a short competition – you cannot make a mistake.”
Despite this, he knows the values and style Spain have, having won the 2011 UEFA European Under-19 Championships. It won’t be easy here though, with watershed clashes against two other countries producing exciting young talent in Germany and Netherlands. Russia are the first opponents though and Lopetegui has insisted the team must start well or pay the price.
Spain will attempt to play open, fluid football but retain discipline and shape – the main aim being to make sure they are in charge of the ball. This is certainly conceivable too given the talent on display with the likes of Isco, Koke and Thiago, some of the most efficient and intelligent users of the ball in Spain. With Illarramendi too they have a player with purpose in his passing and who has come off the back of a sensational campaign.
Defensively Spain look more solid than ever and with De Gea conceding only two goals in 2011, he’ll want standards to be maintained. Marc Bartra and the colossal Inigo Martinez are apparently the favoured pairing at centre-back, while Sevilla’s youngster Alberto Moreno emerged well to establish himself in the first team this season. A good selection headache for Lopetegui will be choosing between Martin Montoya and Dani Carvajal, with both proving extremely adept for club and country.
Rodrigo’s likely to lead the attack and, top-scoring with 11 goals in qualifying, the Benfica man is ready to strike fear into defences at this stage. His movement and ability both on the ground and in the air have proved vital for Loptegui’s system.
Everything it seems is in place for this Spain team. As for the opponents, if they’re coming at the kings they best not miss.