Juan Mata entered the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark with quite a reputation. Not only was he a senior figure for Spain in both age – at 23 – and experience, as a seasoned performer in Europe's club competitions with Valencia CF. Alongside captain Javi Martínez he was also one of two players in Luis Milla's squad to have lifted the FIFA World Cup the previous year.
Whatever the prestige of that Spanish triumph, however, Mata's one-match cameo in South Africa was surely eclipsed by the continuous excellence he displayed over five matchdays on the Jutland peninsula. Operating initially from the left – yet with licence to roam and interchange with midfield schemer Thiago Alcántara and fellow winger Iker Muniain – Spain's nippy No10 was a hard man to pin down.
The defences of England, Czech Republic and Ukraine in Group B, followed by Belarus and Switzerland in the semis and final, found it impossible. Whether instigating moves or getting on the end of them, he was a bright spark never dimmed in the Spanish attack. Almost single-handedly he gave Spain momentum by serving up Adrián López's first two goals of the finals against the Czech Republic. Then, in the decisive group game against Ukraine, he showed he could finish too – converting a one-on-one and a penalty.
Overall, Mata helped himself to two goals, two assists, one Carlsberg Sport Man of the Match Award and, to complement the winners' medal he received after Switzerland were defeated in Aarhus, the Bronze Boot as third top scorer. That's some return from 479 minutes' work.
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