How entrenched Saul Niguez was in Vicente del Bosque’s Euro 2016 plans just a few weeks ago would have been questionable. But then he danced and weaved his way through a staunch Bayern Munich rear-guard and rifled a shot past arguably the best goalkeeper on the planet.
Perhaps no player has scored such an individual goal since Lionel Messi’s jaw-dropping solo effort against the very same opposition nearly a year prior. Either way, he propelled Atletico Madrid into the Champions League final and staked his claim for a place on the plane to France in the process.
The young midfielder has come on leaps and bound since his formative years. One full season just 20 minutes down the road on loan at Rayo Vallecano is all it took to convince Diego Simeone he was ready for the big time.
And, at present, he is gaining increasing status as a lynchpin under Simeone, in what is both a physically-imposing yet technically-adept Atletico Madrid side, which is very representative of what the 21-year-old brings to the pitch.
While his mazy run and classy goal against the German champions displayed his technical prowess, unexpected but favourable attributes in his armoury include proficiency in the tackle and a propensity to battle for and win aerial duels.
But perhaps one of Saul’s greatest strengths lies in his versatility. During his time back at Atleti, he has performed in a range of midfield roles and on both wings.
He even featured at centre-back against Eibar, where he scored in a 3-1 win. One of nine goals he has scored this season, making himself the club’s third-highest scorer after strikers Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres.
While all this weighs in his favour, the biggest obstacle to the national team will be the plethora of talented midfielders Vicente del Bosque has at his disposal.
The likes of Andres Iniesta, Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva were all present as Spain defended their title in 2012, and the majority are likely to feature again. Meanwhile, hungry young players at top clubs such as Isco and Thiago Alcantara are likely to be challenging for spots.
Even in his own team, he faces a great deal of competition from teammates and compatriots Koke and Gabi. And, despite 47 caps at youth level, his lack of full international experience is also unlikely to sway in his favour.
The midfielder was called lup ast year as part of the veteran tactician’s bulbous 29-man squad for both a friendly with Costa Rica and Euro 2016 qualifier against Belarus. Named as one of five reserve players, he didn’t see game time for either fixture and has not been involved since.
Compatriot and Atleti teammate Torres is firmly in Saul’s corner, and he has backed the starlet to be called up for Spain. Torres, as well as several other Atleti players, could possibly be on the plane to France. However, for this tournament at least, Del Bosque is unlikely to call Saul.