By Robert O’Connor & Oliver Young-Myles
Last Updated: 17/06/17 10:57pm
Spain lived up their billing as European U21 Championship favourites by thrashing Macedonia 5-0 in their opening game of the tournament.
Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio was the star of the show helping himself to a hat-trick while Saul Niguez and Gerard Deulofeu were also on the scoresheet.
We’ve selected four of Spain’s stars from their comprehensive win on Saturday night who could play themselves into contention for the senior World Cup in Russia next summer.
These finals were always likely to be an arena in which Real Madrid forward Asensio could plant his flag as Europe’s most exhilarating young player, and against limited opposition in Gdynia he made the opening weekend of the European U21 Championship his own.
The nonchalance of the finish that brought Spain’s opening goal against Macedonia echoed the body language of the man whose shoes he might soon be expected to fill at the Bernabeu, and Asensio led his team by consummate example with an assurance that even Cristiano Ronaldo would have struggled to surpass.
Asensio may yet prove to be as instrumental to this Spain side as his club-mate was in Portugal’s unlikely triumph at the senior tournament 12 months ago. There will not be a more confident player in Poland this summer, and it’s likely that we are witnessing the first bold steps of a player whose class will leave a lasting imprint in international football.
Everton are reportedly closing in on the signing of Sandro Ramirez from Malaga for just £5m and judging by his exploits in recent months it could prove to be a bargain.
The 21-year-old striker enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in La Liga last season, scoring 14 goals and registering three assists from 30 appearances for Malaga after joining them from Barcelona in 2016.
While Sandro failed to score during Spain’s 5-0 demolition of Macedonia, he always posed a threat to the Macedonia defence due to his clever movement, work-rate and pace on the counter-attack.
Sandro constantly dragged defenders out of position by drifting into inside channels on both flanks, dropping deep to get involved in his side’s build-up and spinning in behind the defence.
Although a goal eluded him on the night, he came close to finding the net on a couple of occasions, agonisingly missing an inviting cross into the box from Asensio midway through the second half.
Marco Asensio established himself as an important member of Real Madrid’s first-team squad last season after enjoying a productive loan campaign the year before and Marcos Llorente is in line to do likewise next term.
Llorente spent the 2016/17 campaign on loan at Alaves and starred as the promoted club overachieved by finishing ninth in La Liga and reaching the Copa del Rey final.
For Alaves, Llorente’s role was to act as a defensive shield at the base of midfield, winning the ball back for his side through making tackles and interceptions in front of his own box.
However, when playing for a Spain team that plays on the front foot rather than the back, Llorente has proven that he is an extremely accomplished passer of the ball, as well as a defensive destroyer.
Against Macedonia, Llorente’s range of passing really caught the eye. He recycled the ball resourcefully through short, simple passes and also displayed a more expansive side to his game too when releasing Inaki Williams with a raking through ball late on.
It was a slow and sloppy start for the elder statesman of this U21 side, but there was enough here to confirm that Deulofeu has the power to be an effective tournament captain for Spain.
It’s five years since the player capped 32 times at this level made his debut for Barcelona, and there should be no underestimating the influence to be exerted in a youth international tournament by a player with almost a hundred appearances in La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League to his name.
That seniority is invaluable to this team. Deulofeu was a controlling, sensible presence for Spain against Macedonia, crucially so in a team where Asensio had seemingly been given free reign and Saul Niguez and Denis Suarez at times went wandering.
The AC Milan forward knows how to keep shape and, crucially, has the authority to reign in his team-mates when a more structured approach than was necessary tonight is called for.
Portugal U21 vs Spain U21
June 20, 2017, 7:40pm