The 2019 Euro U-21 was a fest of beautiful football, players with raw talent and managers balancing youth development and tactics. As a Spanish side with star names such as Fabian Ruiz, Dani Ceballos, Carlos Soler, Ferran Torres went on to win the tournament, few were surprised. There was a tangible feeling of excitement before the tournament. This was a squad full of electrifying players who were proving themselves on the biggest stages.
This time around, the situation is slightly different. The players are relatively inexperienced in terms of their club football. The feeling surrounding this team is that of an underdog. France, Netherlands, England and Portugal have much stronger squads.
The Spanish under-21 side faced Slovenia in the first match of the tournament yesterday. In this match review, we look at how they performed and how players affiliated with Barcelona performed in the 0-3 victory.
Coming into the match as firm favourites, the atmospheres around the camps of the teams had reversed within 45 minutes. La Roja came into the match full of confidence. After all, they were expected to win it comfortably. Slovenia, on the other hand, came into the match, expecting hell against the country that has won this competition the most. Fast forward 45 minutes, and the anxiety was visible amongst the Spanish youngsters.
The first half was riddled with individual mistakes as well as mistakes as a collective by the Spanish under-21 side. This was a team devoid of ideas and lacking dynamism. Lining up in a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1, maintaining possession wasn’t the challenge, and neither was progressing the ball forwards. The trouble started in the final third. Slovenia would allow Spain to keep the ball but allow no ways to threaten the goal.
Spain were at a crossroads. They wanted to play the sort of game you’d expect from a Spanish side. However, the starting XI wasn’t the kind that could optimally implement that system. For example, the positioning of ex-Barcelona striker Abel Ruiz was that which would complement incisive wingers or inverted wingers.
Ex-Barcelona left-winger Cucurella, however, is by no means an incisive player. Brahim Diaz was a breath of fresh air down the right. Cucurella would stay wide, which would deprive Juan Miranda, the left-back, of the space he does so well to exploit.
In midfield, Slovenia were surprisingly dominant. Their pressing was good, and they look to impose themselves physically. In the end, they were unable to sustain attacking play due to pure inferiority of quality. However, had the teams been even remotely close to equal in terms of pure talent, the match would have ended up in a win for the hosts.
Luis De La Fuente’s side made zero changes at halftime, much to everyone’s surprise. The match resumed and continued the same way it had for the first 45. Until inspiration struck. During a period of sustained attacking play, Espanyol forward Puado was screaming for the ball in the box. As it came bouncing to him, a sweetly-struck half-volley saw the net bulge as the scoreboard now read 0-1.
Just 2 minutes later, Puado got the ball in Spain’s half and released Cucurella with acres of space down the left. Dribbling into the final-third, he crossed the ball into the path of Roma’s Gonzalo Villar. Wearing the number 10 jersey, he opened up his body and caressed the ball into goal. The goalkeeper stood no chance. The finish was as polished as can be.
Since the first half showed that the midfield was sluggish and uninspired in the final-third, changes were expected. Manu Garcia was the first substitution that really changed the game. His quality on the ball is undeniable, and the game seemed to flow through him once he established his presence on the field. Along with him, Osasuna’s Jon Moncayola came on for Marc Cucurella. He would tuck in, which allowed Juan Miranda much more freedom, leading to the third goal being scored by the left-back.
Unfortunately, Barcelona players Riqui Puig and Oscar Mingueza didn’t get any minutes. The spotlight was shared by many players, out of which many who result in a smile on the face of Culés. In defence, Jorge Cuenca was solid and reliable. Though a Villareal player, Barcelona have a buyback clause allowing for him to return to the Camp Nou. Marc Cucurella and Juan Miranda were impressive down the left. They provided stability to the team that the right side of Brahim Diaz and Pipa couldn’t.
This victory sees Spain go top of group B. Up next, Spain face Italy on 27th March. Italy are in a situation similar to that of Spain. Both teams are clearly inferior to the squads that they have seen in the past. However, a win against the Azurri would put Spain in a comfortable position to qualify. More than the result, supporters of La Roja would be hoping for a better performance from Luis De La Fuente’s side.
Three talking points from Real Madrid 2-1 Barcelona
In the final edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 domestic campaign, Barcelona incurred their fifth defeat of the league campaign. It was end-to-end stuff in the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, as an exceptional first-half performance from the hosts was followed up by a tantalizing second from Barça.
This game had everything someone could ask for in a Clásico. There was controversy, passion, goals and for the first time in a few years, a red card was the cherry on the top. These are Barca Universal’s takeaways from the game in the capital.
Real Madrid’s efficiency on show
With four shots on target, 1.58 Expected Goals, and two goals to their name, Real Madrid put to show their sheer efficacy in front of goal, as well as in defence. For the first half at least, Zinédine Zidane’s men were always at the right place, at the right time making all the right movements and to devastating effect.
Los Blancos‘ philosophy is one of winning, and doing so regardless of how the victory is earned. Contrary to the Catalans, who not only need to win, but also do it a certain way, Los Merengues are more than capable of abandoning their usually proactive approach to games in favour of a more reactive one. The fact that they are not bound to a specific ideology makes winning matches one of the simplest of tasks.
They held the ball for only 32% of the game, which goes completely against what a majority would expect them to. At the end of the day, however, possession matters significantly less than what one does with it. With every lapse in concentration from the Garnet and Blue, Madrid had enough men forward, and well enough positioned, to hit them where it hurt.
Despite the relatively low xG, they had enough big chances to even lead 4-0 come the halftime whistle. When it came to defending, their tight-knit defence, in stark contrast to that of their rivals, barely broke a sweat. They imposed an impenetrable low block, and applied a collective press to force as many errors as they could.
In addition to this, Zidane has the luxury of having a starting eleven of devastatingly versatile footballers in his arsenal. Fede Valverde for instance was as much a right-back as he was a central midfielder and a winger. He executed each role to pristine perfection, and so did his peers to ensure all 3 points, and bragging rights stayed in Madrid.
Excellent mentality shift
Following such a harrowing performance in the first half, few, if any, could have expected Barcelona to mount a comeback. Had this been any other team, that would have been possible, but given Real Madrid’s first-half performance, this was all but envisageable.
Indeed, the Catalans did fail to get any points from the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, however, the sheer mentality they showed in the second half was a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Koeman made the necessary adjustments to the side, reverting to the 4-3-3 and with it, they wrought trouble in the Madrid backline.
Lionel Messi celebrating the goal. pic.twitter.com/ZX1HzWSqAR— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) April 10, 2021
If in the first half Barça seemed caged in endless cycles of worthless possession, then in the second they made thorough use of it. The Blaugrana created eleven chances for themselves in the second period, and while doing this, they in turn limited Los Blancos to just a single shot on goal for the entirety of the half; a complete turnover from their performance in the opening 45 minutes.
It was nail-biting stuff up until the final second of the game, as Ilaix Moriba’s volleyed effort struck the underside of the crossbar. Given the overall performance from both sides, a draw would have been a considerably fairer result, but even in defeat with this version of Barça, the players and fans know that they can keep their heads held high.
A game of fine margins
Games of the magnitude of El Clásico will forever be decided by the most minute of details and the same was the case here.
The first significant one was the frame of the goal. In the first half, following the umpteenth counter attack from Real Madrid, Fede Valverde, who up until then was having yet another phenomenal showing against Barcelona, struck the frame of the post with a shot that crucially bounced underneath Sergio Busquets.
In the second half, Ronald Araújo nearly scored an own goal, but with Ter Stegen rooted to the spot, the ball rolled delicately onto the post and out for a corner. In the final minute of the match, and with Madrid fighting for their lives, Ilaix Moriba struck the underside of the crossbar to end this sensational tie on an emotional high.
Jordi Alba has often been criticized for being just as much a blessing offensively as he is a curse defensively. In the build-up to the hosts’ opener, he had one task to fulfill: mark his opposing fullback. This is one he absolutely failed, as he drifted too far inside, and by the time he had noticed his error, Lucas Vázquez already had Karim Benzema in his sights. Too little, too late.
The final significant detail was in the goal that won Los Blancos the game. After what many consider a poorly given free-kick from the referee’s standpoint, Toni Kroos surely could not believe his eyes when he saw the sheer state of Barça’s wall. Marc André Ter Stegen’s poor leadership of his defenders left him utterly vulnerable, and his German counterpart spared him no blushes, slotting it home to seal the victory for his side.