Marco Asensio is supposed to be the star of the current Spain Under-21 side, but after their emphatic 3-1 victory over Italy in the semi-final of the European Championships, Saul Niguez may have overtaken his cross-city club rival with an extraordinary performance.
The Atletico Madrid midfielder scored a sumptuous hat-trick to send La Rojita into the final against Germany, and his ability to turn it on in the big games is something that the footballing world is becoming familiar with. Saul has scored in Champions League quarter and semi-finals, and his attacking influence on games is only increasing as he becomes more accustomed to operating in the opposition’s half of the pitch.
The 22-year-old’s capacity to provide predatory finishes in tight games has been crucial at Atleti for some time, and this is now being translated to international football, albeit not with the senior side just yet. His first goal on Tuesday night was just inside the box, but with three players around him he managed to sweep the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma with aplomb. As if that wasn’t enough, when 10-man Italy equalised, Saul pulled a sensational 30-yard screamer out of the bag to restore his team’s lead and then sealed the victory, and the match ball, with a sweetly taken third.
La Rojita Coach Albert Celades would have been delighted with Saul’s match winning performance considering how difficult with his side found it to break through Italy’s high press in the first half.
Italy started the better team and the game looked, inauspiciously for Celades’ men, similar to affairs between the senior sides of the respective nations in the way it was quite cagey. However, Spain soon started to find some success on the counter, looking dangerous as the first half drew to a close, which foreshadowed what was to come.
The final 45 minutes provided a new lease of life to La Rojita- they stepped up a few gears, and as well as Saul, Dani Ceballos was magnificent. The tenacity and ability to beat men at will that the Real Betis man brings is unrivalled, and after not starting the first game against Macedonia, he is almost certainly one of the first names on the team sheet now for Celades.
Spain’s golden generation of players that won three consecutive international trophies is a thing of the past, but there is every chance that they have another one on their hands. This group is exceptionally talented, with a number of players who can turn a game on its head in one moment and a defence that is solid enough to withhold pressure from opponents. It seems unfair when players with the experience and quality of Saul and Asensio can play in this competition, but Celades has used all of the tools available to him unlike other countries.
Anything less than a win on Friday in the final against Germany will be considered failure for a Spain U-21 side who managed set the bar even higher with their performance against Italy.