Spain 2-0 Switzerland
(Herrera 41, Thiago Alcántara 81)
Aarhus Stadion, Aarhus
Spain claimed the glory, Switzerland the honour in defeat, yet they were not the only ones leaving Denmark with fond memories of an engaging 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark.
Europe's northern waters make no promise of sun, sea and sand. The Baltic and North Seas carry no guarantees. Yet beside the Kattegat strait, which helps to connect the two waterways, a strong dose of Spanish sunshine was elemental to a successful competition.
Aarhus, the venue for Saturday's final which Spain won 2-0 against Switzerland, was the hub for a tournament showcasing the bright young things of European football – and in graduation week for the city's many students, Luis Milla's team took the ultimate honours.
That they prevailed was reward for their enterprising attacking football. Only a late England equaliser had stopped these heirs to the world and European champions winning all five of their matches in Denmark's Jutland peninsula. After that early setback, Spain found the cutting edge to complement their relentlessly positive possession play – namely, five-goal adidas Golden Boot award winner, Adrián López.
The Czech Republic and Ukraine were brushed aside before the Group B victors required an 89th-minute Adrián equaliser against Belarus in a Viborg semi-final which appeared to be drifting away from them. A 3-1 extra-time triumph followed. Spain's extra know-how then enabled them to negotiate the test posed by first-time finalists Switzerland and claim the country's third U21 title from fifth attempts.
According to Milla, the Swiss were the "best team" the Spain coach had seen in the eight-strong field. They certainly stood out in registering the sole 100% record leading up to the Aarhus Stadion final: Pierluigi Tami's side had proceeded from an opening win against hosts Denmark in Aalborg to defeat Iceland and Belarus and wrap up Group A. The Czechs were duly downed by a solitary Admir Mehmedi strike towards the end of overtime in their Herning semi-final.
Nonethless, goalkeeper Yann Sommer's unbeaten streak – an unprecedented run for this tournament – was to be ended by Ander Herrera's first-half header and an extravagant Thiago Alcántara free-kick. Spain, with 2010 FIFA World Cup winners Javi Martínez and Juan Mata again playing central roles, proved irresistible even for a confident Swiss ensemble. That Milla had to make only one change to his 4-2-3-1 lineup all fortnight – and that a like-for-like swap – underlined how the Spaniards just carried on winning.
Tami's troops, meanwhile, combined 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup winners with 'veterans' of the senior squad's recent Wembley draw with England in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying. Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Innocent Emeghara were hardly traditional Swiss names yet their team showed great togetherness in advancing Switzerland's cause.
There were other highlights too. With no side qualified for the semi-finals from either group going into the third and final matchday, high drama ensued in topsy-turvy matches between England and the Czech Republic (1-2), and Iceland and Denmark (3-1). That was the Icelanders' first U21 victory over their Nordic rivals but still left them a goal short of the semi-finals: they and Denmark were edged out by Belarus in a three-way head-to-head tie.
Home fires had burned brightly but briefly following Nicolai Jørgensen's superb clincher against Belarus, the team that later gained the consolatory Olympic spot – alongside the two finalists – by beating the Czechs 1-0 in a play-off. If it wasn't to be for the locals on the pitch, they proved ideal hosts off it, whatever the rain, wind or shine of a Danish midsummer. Spain will be taking home particularly warm memories.
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